A Letter From Berlin

Clive James, the poet, raconteur and wit,
A man whose light no bushel could conceal,
(A fact I’m sure he’d cheerfully admit
Between prolonged quotations from O’Neill)
Wrote letters home in verse – the clever git –
A trick too entertaining not to steal.
In striving thus to emulate my betters
I hope to write more interesting letters.

I write this from the city of Berlin
Where I cannot (although God knows I’ve tried)
Outrun the little Jewish boy within
Who watched the film ‘The Pianist’ and cried.
“Do Not Forget!” the pachyderms chip in
As though the past had anywhere to hide.
Once Hitler’s murders fade into irrelevance
This city’s rooms will still be filled with elephants.

Oh Hitler, you say, stifling a yawn,
What else is left to say to do him down?
How do you think poor Eva could have borne
That genocidal, double-talking clown?
Is her name said to rhyme with strength then, brawn,
Or like the shirts her husband favoured, brown?
How else could she, the evening after Gleiwitz
Massage the corporal’s unassuming privates?

That other Berlin girl, the Kanzlerin,
Whose mobile phone, as we all know, was hacked,
Her Handy handy too for listening in.
For shame, such an ungentlemanly act,
Obama isn’t welcome in Berlin!
(Well, let’s call that a taxi-driver fact,
But what with Cameron now at odds with Merkel,
It’s funny how the world has come full circle).

Frau Hargous, O, if you could see me now!
Those years of German lessons gone to waste,
Ashamed at mispronouncing Löwenbrau
(And more embarrassed not to like the taste),
And every time I speak a word, somehow
My adjectival endings get misplaced.
I’ve as much chance of being ein Berliner
As having Currywurst for Friday dinner.

When leaving my hotel I half expect
The buildings to appear in black-and-white,
Befogged with that cheap smoke machine effect
And those symbolic beams of splintered light
That made war movies such fun to direct
And patriotic privilege to write.
Instead I find the city’s calm disorder
Reminds me more of Lubitsch than of Korda.

The past is too oppressive to avoid:
I travelled west to Grunewald yesterday,
To see a rebuilt house since re-destroyed,
And heading back the guidebook chanced to say
(Or did I chance to see it? Tell me, Freud)
It’s where they carted Berlin’s Jews away.
I can’t imagine that almighty hubbub
Invading this genteel and leafy suburb.

In Egypt, when the Lord’s displeasure came,
They marked their doors with blood so they’d be spared.
In Germany they could not do the same,
The death’s-head angels were too well-prepared.
Gold plaques now mark their homes, each bears a name
For whom a rich survivor must have cared.
One more to throw on the bonfire of pities –
The streets aren’t paved with gold in other cities.

The Nazi bogeymen are all but dead.
Our nightmares all we leave them to abuse,
The monsters are afraid of us instead –
The goose-stepping Gestapo forced to use
The closets, squeezing underneath the bed
In spaces once exclusively for Jews.
But, out in Argentina, geriatrics
Still punch the air when Germany scores hat-tricks.

With so much past, a city might be drowned,
So Berlin stockpiles its museums on
An island. There on isolated ground
One holds one’s breath inside the Pergamon
To see the wall a room was built around:
The gates of Ishtar fresh from Babylon,
Whose gold and purple inlays had more power
Than barbed cement in the Berliner Mauer.

I must now bring this letter to a close –
Amidst your almost palpable relief
I feel an obligation to disclose
The German word, amusingly, is Brief.
Please pass on my most meaningful hellos
To those who otherwise would die of grief,
And for yourself as many hugs or kisses
As matches best what your idea of bliss is.


The Curious Case of the Double Dactyls and the Wasted Time

So here’s a thing – I’ve just discovered my new favourite verse form. It’s called the double dactyl, and I was thrown under the wheels of this particular poetical omnibus while following the tracks of noted Clerihovian Sam Wong. There are rules galore, but as with most things apart from keyhole surgery and flower arranging it is easiest to learn by example.

There are some beautiful such examples online – here is a selection of my favourites:

Higgledy Piggledy
Loch Ness’s residents
Have, in a beautifully
Elegant twist,

Uncovered evidence
Proving conclusively
Shouldn’t exist
(A. H. Templeton)


Vladimir Nabokov
Wrote with intelligence,
Passion and verve –

Middle American
Got him denounced as a
Dangerous perv
(Hardeep Q. Bompast)


Thundery Blundery
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Zealously studied the
Light Brigade’s Charge,

But never stopped to gain
With his own agent’s,
Which proved to be large.
(Cyrus Zangwill and Mordecai Oleogaster)


Plinkety Plonkety
Quantum mechanicists
Tried to tell particles
How to behave

Not having realised
Means every particle’s
Also a wave.
(Tyquon Doe)


Higgledy Piggledy
I know a scientist
Who thinks that infra red’s
Quite infra dig;

One day he said to me
“This is the decade that
Gonna be big.”
(Elizabeth Termagant [née Brunswick])


Higgledy Piggledy
Tenzing and Hillary
Once had a fight that went
On for a week,

Before concluding that,
What they had found was the
Wrong type of pique.
(Norman Tebbit and the Broadway cast of Rent)


Tra-la-la Fa-la-la
Kiri Te Kanawa
Once to Sarkozy was
Heard to exclaim:

I’m from New Zealand, Sir”
“Qui?” said the Frenchman and
“Oui” said the Dame.
(Eric Morecambe and Nathan the Wise)


“Hallelu Hallelu
Oscar B. Templeton
Died doing what he loved
Most – shall we say –

Passing the time, ahem,
Autoerotically –
With the exhaust pipe of
His Chevrolet”
(Edward Saïd with thanks to Nora Ephron)


Pat-a-cake Pat-a-cake
Cameron Mackintosh
Keeps getting scripts to his
London address,

Sent by a musically
Literate bevy of
Inkers no less.


Oy gevalt, Oy gevalt,
Jesus of Nazareth
Died on the cross so our
Souls wouldn’t die:

Now every Easter this
Life is remembered with
Chocolate – but why?
(St Augustine of Hippo and St Anthony of Rhino)

March 22nd 2013

Sadly, more to follow…