hogarth-cockpit-1759-grangerIf the state of politics
is bringing out your nervous tics –
your leg, your nose, your eye, your face –
if you despair of the human race,
if Brexit leaves you short of breath,
where ‘May’ means ‘must on pain of death’ –
if you despise a shirt of black,
if you fear no one’s got your back,
if you feel meant to feel the shame
when companies are told to name
their employees who may be foreign,
as that’s not kosher any more, and
while we’re at it, if you weren’t
born in Britain, their deterrent
makes you feel unnecessary –
if all you want is some good fairy
to take you back to the days of yore –
say, 22nd June, before
a paltry 2.8 per cent
had ratified the hate you’re meant
to feel’s a kind of ‘Britishness’,
that King-&-Country Eton mess
that says, ‘Our islands! Must defend ’em!
Long live the lies and the referendum!’
And you’re the thing they think’s attacking,
and with no job you fear you’re slacking,
and if your fairy’s nowhere near
(she’s somewhere else with a flea in her ear),
and the end of the Enlightenment
just brings on Fight-or-flightenment –
if what you need’s a bit of human
rights – or income – if the loomin’
North American election
makes you need some warmth, affection,
but there’s none of that these days,
and all your friends are in a craze
for one or other charismatic
loony-tune or old asthmatic
woolly-jumpered demogogue
and common discourse is a fog
of spew and guile, judgemental bile,
and human rights are on the pile
in Britain, Hungary, and Poland,
if  ‘Citizen of the World’ means no land
where you’ll ever feel at home,
even at home – your monthly rent
a sneer of insidious intent –
your neighbours loud, and speaking Yiddish,
their husbands grim, their children skittish,
even more foreign than you – that’s parity
and at least it lends some clarity
of a kind, you kind of guess,
though not much comfort. But I digress.
You walk the half-deserted streets
and mutter, as the past retreats
and no one ever speaks to you
and find that something filters through
the ether – yes, that might be it.
You’ve having some kind of little fit.
It goes with the twitches, it will pass
on the other side of the looking-glass
if only you can get back there.
Rapunzel, please let down your hair!
O take me into your ivory tower, 
where experts flourish and ideas flower
and one may think whate’er one thinks,
while the world burns down and Britain sinks
into a mire of its own slurry.
I need a story, I’m in a hurry,
you want to cry. But there’s no story.
There’s no Rapunzel, there’s no fairy.
There’s nothing but Theresa May
And Donald Trump, and anyway
The future’s coming. You can’t hide.
You can’t just try to stay inside.
If all of this, and more, is true
remember that it’s up to you
to grasp the stick and save the world,
with ego parked and mind unfurled,
to make your story, teach, andwrite –
to draw, observe, and give a fright
to those from whom would heaven forfend –
defend our international local,
be bloody loud, be bloody vocal!
You be the fairy. Make, give, mend.
Happy Poetry Day, my friend.

It seems like ancient history now. The world before. I remember staring at the BBC website and saying to my colleague, ‘Oh Jesus so this is it. This is it. The beginning.’ He goes, beginning of what, what you talking about? I said, ‘World War Three. This is it.’ He laughed. Don’t be ridiculous, no it isn’t. I said, ‘You have no idea. They’ll never stand for this. Everything just changed. Trust me, this is it.’
It was never my favourite building. It was crass, the subject of a jingoistic pride drummed into us when I was little; even when I was ten I could see the thing was in bad taste and rather stupid. Anyway, it was for bankers, not people like us. And there had been incidents that seemed like second-rate action movies – that ludicrous business when a small plane flew into it, the weird bombing in the underground car park. That day when my friend Pat and I were having lunch, someone called and told him a plane had flown into the World Trade Center.  We just thought it sounded sensationalist. Back in his office we watched the second tower fall.
Eventually I walked into the middle of the open plan office – everyone was just sitting at their desks, it looked normal – and all of a sudden in the middle of an aisle I just exploded, floods of tears and shaking, and had to be helped to a chair. They all crowded round, what’s the matter, what’s the matter? Are you okay? Are you ill? I blubbered New York –  Ohh, of course, you’re worrying about your family, are your family in New York City? Fools, I thought. (But that may also have been the moment I remembered my sister had just started a brand-new job in a ‘big international law firm’ I’d been told was ‘downtown’. I didn’t panic because I assumed that if anything had happened to her I’d feel it, somehow, and I wasn’t feeling it. ‘Downtown’ turned out to be comparative; she was in the mid-50s, standing in the office forecourt with her colleagues, watching the whole thing unfold in the clear blue sky.)
In the days that followed, so many sweet kind colleagues came to my desk to express their condolences, which touched me, and they all said: ‘It’s so sad…’ A couple of them, even unlike me, had lost people. But I wanted to punch them. SAD!! Sad isn’t even half of it, it’s bloody terrifying, no one even knows what’s going to happen now, ‘sad’ is the least of it.
My oldest kid remembers the day partly for our phone conversation. He called to say he was waiting for his father who had said he’d be picking him up from school, and his dad was very late and not answering his phone. I said listen, he’s just held up in the school playground, I’m sure everyone’s just talking, because of all the – you know – … By this time I was walking through a deserted Isle of Dogs, because the office had shut. Rumours were that Canary Wharf might be next.
He hadn’t heard. ‘Why, what’s happening?’ He was 12. I tried to think of a way to frame it. I couldn’t. It just blurted itself out: ‘Oh honey… I’m sorry. It’s the – the – the worst thing in the world  has happened…’
Later, the trains were down, the tunnels were closed, there was no phone signal, my sister couldn’t get out of the city. Stuck with thousands of other people in Port Authority or somewhere, having had nothing to eat and facing hours of waiting – she managed to get through to my mother on a pay phone. Mom had heard the rumours about Canary Wharf and was going, ‘one daughter downtown and another in Canary Wharf’ – she was relieved to find that at least one of us was fine, and not long after that I got through too. (Of course, Canary Wharf never blew up. Instead I said in the underground concourse the next morning, outside Prêt a Manger, reading the load of hyper-paranoic twaddle Martin Amis had spewed out overnight.) In the meantime, though, Sis told Mom that nothing was moving and she was hunkered down, just waiting for something to change and hoping she’d get something to eat later. ‘Well…’ Mom said. ‘Do you have something to read?’
And months after that, my sister told me all about watching it in front of her office building, and a woman rushing up panicking, saying, What’s happening? What’s happening? I’m supposed to be going downtown, I’m meeting a friend, what’s going on, and my sister asked her, ‘Where are you meeting your friend?’ Church Street, the woman said. ‘Church St’, said my sister. ‘That’s not so good’.’
It wasn’t until I got home that I remembered about being able to watch the news. The wall-to-wall coverage. Un-not-watchable, & the shock sank in. Ambulances from the hospital where I was so proud to have been born, Beth Israel (a hospital that had been started in 1890 by 40 Orthodox Jews, on a subscription of 25 cents each, to fund provision of health care for new immigrants). White dust-covered people. Chaos. Things that made no sense. The next day, the front page of the Independent made all of Manhattan a black cloud, somewhere inside which was my sister, along with many other friends and relatives. I was lucky; none of mine were under the rubble, or vaporised on the planes, or in a field in Pennsylvania.
So it was bad.
It may not have been the absolute worst thing that ever happened, but it was the start of the worst thing. Fifteen years later there’s no end in sight, no diplomatic process, no peace talks, no clear enemy even. Countless more people have died than died on that day and they still die, and doctors in Aleppo and Greece and elsewhere are desperately trying to do what that group of 19th century New York Jews wanted to do: save the helpless.
Four and a half months after the day that came to be called 9/11, I started a new job – still in Tower Hamlets, in Stepney – and there were posters celebrating Osama bin Laden on the buildings in Ben Jonson Road. It was only just beginning.

Forward Prize shortlist, Day 1: Alice Oswald

August 31, 2016

Ten days till my workshop on all ten shortlisted books, I’m going to post a little something about one of the books every day. With luck that’ll amount to a fair bit of blogging, as there were some other things I wanted to write about too. Alice Oswald’s new collection is a frankly staggering piece […]

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Forward into the breach!*

August 11, 2016

There’s something going on, and it’s changing the culture of UK poetry. Okay, it’s changing the prize culture of UK poetry, but that really does have an impact on who reads what. In the three years (this year), since its new Director Susannah Herbert took over, the Forward Prize has quietly achieved a bit of a […]

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Life in the Referendum: London correspondent

June 22, 2016

Over the next few days I’m going to be doing an ad hoc series of ‘Letters from London’ for the Best American Poetry blog in New York. I gather we’re all over the news over there, but (kind of like here) nobody can really tell what’s going on. It may be that they’re just too […]

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My Top 10 Reasons for Staying in the EU

June 9, 2016

Hi guys. Sorry to do this to you. I know everyone is sick to death of this debate, but I set myself a challenge to outline my reasons for Remaining without resorting to quips about Boris, etc. Especially since I just met his dad, Stanley, at a book launch the other week. Let’s keep the […]

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