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A very old composition found in the cellar!

The Ci-Xi Imperial Dowager Empress (5).JPG

There was a young woman who lived in a palace.

She had so many eunuchs, she didn’t know what to do;

so she seized all the power and, out of sheer malice,

delivered milk cakes to the hapless Niuhuru.


There never was a girl like Tzu’ Hsi-

prickly as ten porcupines.

She didn’t like being in the second division

of The Son of Heaven’s concubines.

She may have been L’il Orchid when she lived in Pewter Lane,

but she morphed into a tiger lily as The Dragon Suzerain.


If you came into her presence, you kowtowed pretty quick,

or, like Kuang-hsu, you found yourself becoming very sick.


She wasn’t too cognisant of seagull hovering, cicada’s cling,

but she made the dragon turn in the city of Peking.

She slept on petalled pillows, lulled by ticking Cox’s clocks,

pretending to be venerable and fairly orthodox.

But when they all struck ding dong bell,

she had Pearl Concubine chucked down the well.

Oh, what a naughty girl was that,

to drown the Emperor’s pussy cat!

As for her widowed daughter-in-law, she didn’t care a hoot

and didn’t bat an eyelid at the suicide of Alute.


The Great Wall of China at Jinshanling-edit.jpg

(Severin.stalder own image Great Wall at Jinshanling- 8/6/2013)


She hurried to her Manchu homeland in the shade of The Great Wall

while the mutinous brigades she’d fostered went on to have a ball.

Originally they’d practised callisthenics in ill-disciplined cohorts,

but she didn’t want her eunuchs dressing up in Boxer shorts.

Not one to have a lily liver- nor yet a lily foot-

she blithely sent Prince Chuang the silken cord to use as he felt suit.


Out-living Queen Victoria delighted her no end.

To British ministers’ wives she was an enemy turned friend.

But before she died of dysentry, she stage-managed one thing more:

she’d see the wretched Kuang-hsu out-he’d go the day before.

Lest anyone should be confused as to their relative worthiness,

she determined his comparative funeral expense was more than two thirds less.


Inviolate for two decades, she lay in the lavish tomb,

but bandits don’t respect the ancient codes of The Jade Room;

they did not fear ancestral shades; showed little veneration

to one who’d been a Jezebel to a different generation.

They stripped her of her grave clothes and threw her in the dust,

which, in the light of history, appears to us quite just.




Frozen in Time


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The Skating Minister.jpg

The Rev. Robert Walker- skating,

decoupaged through the roseate gloaming;

proud, like a cameo against the dun,

broad brushstrokes of Lion’s Haunch; Arthur’s Seat.

Contre-jour, he’s caught in a deft profile.


Has he sublimated his past losses:

that youthful mother and his first-born son?

The joys of discipline light up his eye

and grace and effort are counterbalanced.

His being exudes sound theology.


Just like his Master, he glides on water;

sure-footed, poised; in his own element;

making his own mark where others have scored.

In The Traveller’s Pose, he whizzes past,

like a sparrow through a banqueting hall.


The pink inklings binding his buckled shoon,

question his Presbyterianism.

His gaze is fixed on another city-

not The New Town, enlightened though it be.

The artist in him suspends all beliefs.


No stone in Canongate will pin him down.



Chipping Snodbury


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Great-Aunt Augusta: RIP


Mrs Connolly, the housekeeper at Murgatroyd Syylk’s pele tower,

was exhausted.  She had overseen the triple marriages- well, dual

marriages and one re-espousal- of Augustus and Virginia, Drusilla

and Nigel and her employers: Diana and the aforementioned Murgatroyd.

She had given Dru a lace-trimmed hankie when her mascara had

threatened to run, as the bride had welled up at the thought that dear old

Aunt Augusta would not be with them.  The old curmudgeon had loved a

good wedding, funeral or general family crisis.  She had been sorely


Gus had raised a toast to ‘Absent Friends‘ at the end of his father-of-the-

bride speech, by way of respect.

Curiously a feather had floated down onto the top table at this very point.

It was black, but was nevertheless pronounced a good omen as it

appeared to be exactly like one from Aunt Augusta’s feather boa which

she always wore- even in Snodland Nursing Home for the Debased Gentry, at

aperro-time‘ as she was wont to call that crepuscular, inebriation


Clearly, she was with them in spirit, if not spirits.

They had left a place at the top table for her, or for The Grey Lady whom

she had conversed with, though nobody else had had direct

communication with the resident phantom.

Mrs Connolly had kept a lid on the petulant Mrs Milford-Haven, mother

of Nigel, who had been confused by her lengthy, Corbynesque train

journey from Cornwall.

She had scarcely been over The Camel in her lifetime, but was naturally

acquainted with the concept of a hump.  This was no crude allusion, but

merely indicative of her tendency to sulk when she was not the centre of

attention. Maybe it was some kind of physiological Radon effect.

Mrs Connolly had handled her robustly.

Whit’s the matter with yon wifie?  she had enquired.  Has she peed on a


Soon she had calmed the situation down by introducing her to a Farrow and

Ball paint chart, which gave the peevish guest big ideas for Nigel’s post-

honeymoon guilt trip, to finish off the decoration of her bathroom.

Even Gus had been a tad emotional about his more-or-less step-brother,

Hugo, who was stranded in Venezuela.  He had been unable to leave the

country to take up his proffered teaching post at St Birinus Middle, even

after all the hard work Virginia had put in with visa application and so on.

A black market hawker was unlikely to be able to afford a trip to The


Bachaqueros was a romantic collective noun, but everyone knew that it was


Dru had been exasperated: Why doesn’t he just add billions of zeros to a

Bolivar note and turn up at the airport with a wheelbarrow of them?

It’s not that simple, darling, sympathised Diana.  We should have opened a

‘Generosity’ site to raise funds for him, I suppose.

Oh, I hadn’t thought of crowd-funding, Dru sighed.

Or he could have sold his Ford Pinto, muttered Gus.  Though we have lived to

see Voltaire’s comments on paper currency come true.

The Rev Finlay Armstrong had been aroused at the mention of this notable


Yes, it returns to its intrinsic worth, Snod explained, as if he was back in the


Flickr-Voltaire (marble) by Houdon. Nat Gallery Art, Chester Dale,


Author: Sarah Stierch


But he was not back in the classroom.  He was now to be a married man

and Virginia had suggested that he burn all his old teaching notes in the

new trendy, fire pit which Murgatroyd had installed so that his guests

could sit al fresco in the midge-ridden gloaming on the few Indian

summer evenings which were dry.

That was quick! she had remarked.  There was a few singed curls of paper.

Where is all the rest?  Had you shredded them?

No, Snod replied.  I am of the old school.  All my lessons were, and indeed still

are, in my head.

At least she was assured that there had been no incineration of erstwhile

love letters.  She still had a little explorative rake-through with

Murgatroyd’s self-wrought poker.

She was right about the non-incineration of the amatory epistles. Diana

still possessed them- including the Valentine card which had gone astray

like many a Messianic sheep, all those years ago and which had led to the

current denouement.

But this seemed to be all in the past.  Virginia had been reading Sandor

Marai’s book Embers and an apposite quotation from it had come to mind:

Time is a purgatory that has cleansed all fury from my memories.

We shall subsequently see whether this is indeed the case.

Meanwhile Mrs C was showing her fatigue in her usual Malapropistic

manner: So, when will you be back from Chipping Snodbury? she asked

Murgatroyd and Diana, who had planned a little antique-hunting

expedition in The Cotswolds.

Sodbury! they had exclaimed.




Raeburn at The National Gallery of Scotland


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The Skating Minister.jpg

You didn’t go to The Edinburgh Festival this year?

Brassica enquired.

No, too busy moving house.  But I will never forget the year I

went to the big Raeburn exhibition.

Why is that in particular?  I mean, I know he was a brilliant portrait


Because, when I came out, I could recognise all those faces, or phizzogs,

in Princes Street Gardens…I wrote a poem about the experience, as I


I started to declaim it, but Brassie protested that she didn’t

understand Lallans.  For all you linguists ‘oot there’, as it

were, ‘read oan‘.  See if you can get the gist:

Kirsty wark podium.jpg

(Kirsty Wark- crop image by Frank Wales.

KW at Innovate ’08 Conference, London)


Raeburn At The National Gallery of Scotland


A’ they pitten-oan, pauchtie Whigs appear

oan the Mound, or even wi’ Kirsty Wark,

debating devolution. Tartan-trewed

museum staff hae a look o’ Sir John

Sinclair of Ulbster and the Kirk still skates

oan wabblie ice – no oan Duddingston Loch,

but at its ain General Assembly.

Next thing they’ll be a’ wearin’ pink trappins

as they tapsalteerie roon key issues.


Slidderie, crabbit, towtie judges

aye hae glancy nebs, and advocates

gaither airt traisures. Quate, lang-drauchit wives

keep oan winnin’ their marital chess games;

take mair to theirselves than thir marrow’s queen:

wummen catch oan fast tae Enlightenment.

Braw, harp-playin’ sirens still turn hoose-ends,

musickers are forespoken by thir world;

bairnies crack thir thoums, so ye gie yir tent;

chiels forget thir first wives efter echt days.

The high heid yins adopt designer cloots

tae hide the fact they are debt-bedevilled.

They sappie, pairted lips warsle tae rede

themsels. We can hear them bairge in New Town,

spoat thir reflections in Jenny a’ things.

Thir portraits can be traced aff Princes Street:

there’s that carnaptious phizzog, they chollers:

a’ they bachles oan erstwhile buckled feet.


Otzi- in the news again


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This time it is because of an analysis of his clothes,

which they could not do in as sophisticated a form twenty five

years ago, which is when I first wrote the poem.  Then they did

not have a name for him either.  So, this was my speculation…

File:Archeoparc - Museum Ötzi Kleidung.jpg

Image by Wolfgang Sauber (Own work)

Otzi’s clothes.


Shaman or shepherd-

who was this heap of skin and bones,

secreted on a scoured slope, blanketed by blizzards,

frozen for fifty-three centuries,

his grave between great groynes of rock?

Like a freak in a formalin flask,

glacial aspic had preserved him

in cryogenic condition,

until he crawled out of the melting ice

to confront climbers on their unmarked expedition.

Iron had conquered copper;

Christ walked on the water;

man walked on the Moon.

Then, like a jewel unceremoniously ripped

from its choice mount,

he was gouged by as crude an implement

as his flanged axe, by probing policemen.

After five thousand years of wind and ice’s interaction,

a four day delay led to putrefaction.

Fungus formed before he lay

in an Innsbruck freezer, a fit subject for display:

humanity reduced to a research possibility.

Countries could clash over key ring franchises,

Icemen mugs and t-shirts in S, M and XL sizes.

Had he left Honstadt and his little house on sticks,

bearing his birch box of sloe berries,

Viburnum arrows and an Ashen bow,

to become a picture on a poster, or a commercial quid pro quo?

Did he hunt, or did he trade- where was he going that day?

Did the snows come early, or did he lose his way?

By picking at his corpse, what do they really want to find-

the contents of his stomach, or the purpose in his mind?




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Queen’s Bedchamber, Versailles


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An old one which I found while clearing out, prior to my house



Queen’s Bedchamber, Versailles

(Photo: Creative Commons Attribution- Share Alike)


You laid your head on cushions embroidered

with heartsease, roses and eyed peacock plumes.

An eagle resplendent over your bed,

its outstretched gullet menacing the room

was ostrich feather crowned. L’Autrichienne,

you primped and preened before the tarnished pier.

Brioche? Cake? Bread?  Cela ne fait rien.

You never expected that you would hear

a distant drumbeat of insurrection.

Shaven, you were in it up to your neck.

No one admired your pale throat’s reflection-

your bolster exchanged for a wooden block.

No shepherdesses attended your beck

and peahen call- for you had lost your flock.

Those below, sheep without a good shepherd

bleated egalite, fraternite,

imagining they’d purge l’etat of merde,

as you bowed out to face eternity.

Nae Surrender!


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(Image:Commons File Meuble Heraldique Main

Zigeuner, Author Lobsterthermidor 11 Oct 2015 UTC)


Right hand

 Nae Surrender!

The Red Hand of Ulster, to Clyde-side kids,

was seared into psyches via covert ink,

which proclaimed ‘King Billy!’ on closed desk lids,

beside ‘I think, therefore I am – I think.’


None of us knew what The Red Hand meant, though

class-mates ran the gauntlet, after the belt

had been strenuously applied.  And so

this palm symbolised what we had all felt:


the stinging slash; the shock in the belly.

We would shout: ‘F.T.P!’ and ‘Ban the Tawse!’

should King Billy march on Lochgelly,

torching two-tongued ‘Heavyweights,’ to applause.


Belts could split chalk at one stroke -and wrists too,

sometimes for a mere three spelling mistakes.

We’d fight The Battle of the Boyne anew

for all those dyslexia victims’ sakes.


Dyslexia was unknown in Scoltand-

1960/1690: who’d know?

The only way to soothe a belted hand

was to stick it in your oxter, then blow;


not bawl: a shirt tail nasal convenience.

We’d grip a pencil stub and break its lead,

scoring: ‘I hate History…and Fenians!’

while the Commonwealth blushed overhead.


We confused ‘Fenians’ with ‘High Heid Yins.’

‘Sinister?’ – we grasped no heraldic lore.

We hadn’t heard how the Irish chose kings;

nor how The Hand had landed on the shore.


‘Red and green should never be seen-except

on an Irish colleen,’ it was said.

When my mother made me wear green, I wept:

blue was for Rangers; distinction inbred.


The lines on every palm are different,

whether it’s a Papist’s, or a Protestant’s.

In school we found red hands no deterrent;

we were all punished, whatever our slant.

The brave battle cry was : ‘Nae Surrender! ‘

This was essential to boost our morale,

while learning an alien agenda,

yet trauma would last through the interval.

( Image: The Dominie Functions by George Harvey, 1826

Abbot House, Dunfermline

Own work : Kim Traynor 5/11/2011)

  • oxter: armpit
  • Lochgelly- where John Dick made the tawses
  • F.T.P- ‘F- the Pope!’



Chinese Restaurant Think Tank


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(Table Setting 5/10/12: photo by micah sittig




If you want to be a nine hundred year

old fish, then stay at the back of the tank,

our guide quipped.  A proverb?  But I heard fear

from a not too distant past, when some sank

without trace.  Huge frogs with bulbous eyes

hunkered behind smaller fry: plump Buddhas,

withdrawing from contact, like all the wise-

too intellectual for consumption. As

we eschewed the coiled snakes and frilled reptile,

we saw longevity and survival

was to become what others revile:

thus to outlive an attractive rival.




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(Compound Eye of Antarctic Krill: Wikipedia.  Photo by Gerd Alberti and

Uwe Kils)


Snodbury was actually his mother’s surname, he believed.

She had waltzed off to Venezuela, following her political dreams

and had settled down with a salsa musician, producing his half-


Aunt Augusta ( Editor:In Retrospect May She Rest In Peace and Rise In

Glory!) had deposited him, as a confused four year old, in St Birinus’

Pre-Prep Department, where he might have turned into a pre-pubescent

Scrooge, given that he was often forgotten at half terms.

It was not the first time that Gus (Snod) had had the distinct sensation

that someone was standing behind him whilst he was shaving.  Through

the condensation he wondered if, like another sweet young prince, he was

about to encounter his ghostly father.  There were more surprising things

in Heaven and Earth, he was sure.

He felt that it was not entirely down to thespian self-delusions that he

could summon up a vague remembrance of an encounter with a man

called Arthur in some school holidays.  The visits were etched on his

consciousness as they were marked by the gifts of a piece of Hornby

kit and a Rev Awdry book.

Aunt Augusta would collect him and take him on the train all the way

to Kent and then they would take a taxi to Wivern Mote.

His aunt and Arthur would sit round the fire in the converted stable block,

drinking mulled wine, if it was a Christmas Holiday, and gin and tonic, if

it wasn’t.  He remembered the odd silver cups from which the wine had

been imbibed.  They had embossed foxes’ heads on them.  He had been

drinking Ribena from a tooth mug and had asked about them.  He

remembered now: they were stirrup cups, he had been informed.

When it was time to go, he had to shake Arthur’s hand with his own

mittened fingers and he grew to anticipate the half crown that would

be passed into his woolly palm.  It was never a two shilling piece.  He

could tell, without looking- which would have been rude-just by feeling

the milled edge.  Yes, Arthur had been generous, if enigmatic.

It wouldn’t seem long before he was back to the security of school- that

same establishment to which he had dedicated not only the best years

of his life,but the majority of them.  The only noteworthy hiatus was

when he had studied Classics at university and had then returned like

the Biblical dog…

The toilet paper he had licked and stuck to his shaving nick fell off.  He

hoped the wound would heal more quickly than the childhood scars he

was well aware of bearing into advanced adulthood.

Catharsis‘- that was le mot juste.  If he could only lance the boil of his

carbuncular life, he felt the bloodletting would be beneficial.  There had

been so many toxic infections visited upon him in the course of his

school-masterly life.

He laughed to himself:  Pus in Boots!  This was the way his tangential mind

roved around, seeking bad puns.

Yes, Dear Reader, the exploration of the life and times of this apparent

nonentity will be the very means whereby he may be purged and brought

to a hopeful re-birth (but not in any Dianetical way, I assure you.)

By tracing his twig’s development on The Tree of Life, by exploring

different starting points, he hoped to arrive at the identical solution: himself.

The Biology teacher had explained convergent evolution to him, but I won’t

bore you with an elucidation now.

He had also wished that he could see the world through a compound eye-

to see himself as others saw him and to see himself more clearly.

Perhaps with ocular enhancement he would avoid any more shaving nicks…

Snod’s Law


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Tête de Bonnard (Portrait photograph of Pierre Bonnard), c.1899, Musée d'Orsay.jpg

(Tete de Bonnard)


Augustus Snodbury, Senior Master at St Birinus Middle School peered

into his fogged up shaving mirror in the manner of Bonnard, but sans

le Maitre’s obsession with la salle de bain.  Was it just the bain– or the

occupant thereof?

He drew his razor across his chin.

Merde!   Marthe.  Strange coincidence that the two words are so similar. 

Bien sur, Marthe is a proper noun and merde is …well. merde is…  Cela ne

fait rien…

(He only swore in foreign languages- usually of the moribund  variety.

Mehercule! was another well-favoured expletive…)

It was Sod’s Law that he should nick himself just before Parents’ Evening.

Au contraire- it was, en effet, Snod’s Law- absolument typique.

There seemed to be some underlying thermodynamic law which ensured

that every literal slice of toast that he would ever drop in his allotted

threescore years and – hopefully plus- would land sunny side down on the

fluffy lino of his kitchenette.

Once he had tried to fathom out the underlying principle, but he had grown

exasperated by the philosophical discussions re/ context sensitivity and

causality.  He usually just scraped the spread off and hoped for the best.

If the odious mater of the dreaded Boothroyd-Smythe boy should smell

blood, she would, no doubt, be after his teacher like a pack leader at a

drag hunt. She would want to ‘discuss’ her infant sauvage/ sauvant’s

penultimate ink exercise-at length.

Each parent/ guardian had been given a four minute and forty nine

seconds’ window of opportunity.  There were others to be seen-and heard-

so Snod had planned his personal defenestration technique, which

involved a pre-set travelling alarm clock.  The previous time he had tried

to utilise the device, it had been confiscated by the school caretaker, who

said it might be mistaken for an incendiary device.

 I mean-mehercule!- Snod had remonstrated- do I look like a terrorist, man?

The caretaker had not ventured an opinion, other than to reinforce that

it was against ‘Elf and Safety.

Snod wiped the condensation away with his pyjama sleeve and applied

pressure to the little bleeder (not the caretaker, you understand.  We are

back in the privacy of the lavatory.) However, the flow was not to be

easily stemmed.  Neither would Mrs B-S ( ‘Irritable Bowel- Syndrome’ was

how he thought of her)…neither would the aforesaid indignant parent

tolerate any hypothetical exploration of her son’s behaviour.  She also

was difficult to staunch.  Snod wondered if her ex-husband had found

the same difficulty in dealing with her when she was in full spout.

Counter factuals interested her as little as the laws of thermodynamics,

or grammar, for that matter, he considered.

Well, we are living in an age where no one cares about the subjunctive, he

mused, so why would anyone contemplate the ‘what ifs’, or the hypothetical


Who do you think you are, Mr Snodbury? she had written in a note delivered

to his poste restante, ergo his pigeonhole in the staff-room.  How could you

give my gifted son such a discouraging assessment when he has an IQ of

160, which is, no doubt, sixty points above most of the masters’ scores in this


He could predict that she would bang on about some theory of Copernican

mediocrity, ad tedium.

But the initial interrogative got beneath his skin, just as his rasoir had.

After some meditation, he considered that her opening gambit was not

so much a rhetorical question, but rather, a declaration of war.

He stuck a shred of toilet paper over the wound.  But maybe she had a


Who am I? he asked himself, while recognising the reflexive modal aspect

of the verb. ( I don’t mean the verb ‘to be‘; I refer to his self-examination.)

He had never felt the need of a gap year, to go off and find himself, but a

sabbatical would have been nice.

That genealogy programme was popular, he knew: the one where

celebrities discovered that their direct lines went all the way back to

William the Conqueror.

Whose didn’t? he thought.  We are all five handshakes from…whom?  Am I

really descended from Genghis Khan, or Attila the Hun, as the boys suspect?

Well, so long as I am not related to Boris Johnson, in spite of our shared

love of the Classics!

He had always felt that he was the terminal bud on a twig which had been

grafted onto someone else’s native tree.

Maybe he should exhibit some natural curiosity and find out the truth of

his generation- etymologically-speaking.

Whatever truth is, as Pilate once so eloquently said, he mused aloud.

It seems to have stopped haemorrhaging now.  I can’t be haemophiliac, so

my blood-line can’t be true blue.




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