THE BALLAD OF EDMUND TUPPENCE
CANTO THE FIRST
1st January 2020
In 1817, one of Britain’s greatest poets Lord Byron wrote Beppo: A Venetian Story in a poetical style he would go on to perfect with Don Juan. The style, known as ottava rima, had a long lineage including the poets Ariosto, Tasso, and Byron’s favourite Giambattista Casti (and would live on in the work of W B Yeats and even novelist Anthony Burgess), uses the metrical arrangement ABABABCC, with the last two lines often delivering a comic or sarcastic payoff. Here, in an unashamed hommage both to Byron and to ottava rima, British Intelligence presents the first publication of the first half of the first canto of The Ballad of Edmund Tuppence…..
Behold a city! Grimed, forlorn and bleak,
Whose streets like pinball gutters flare and spit.
Where tenementary skulk and weave and sneak
Like hobs in some apocalyptic pit
While temporary tenants, through the week,
Arrive and leave by train for want of it.
This city casts a glamour with its name
And moths turn their attention to the flame.
Ah, London! Dr Johnson, you spoke right,
Proclaiming it had all life could afford.
It’s years since your ill-fitting wig (a fright!)
Was brushed by Mrs Thrale (whom you adored).
And Hodge your cat, who moused then by gaslight,
Is dust as you are, unbeknighted lord.
Is he who tires of London tired of life?
Not if he came to London for a wife.
For wives there surely are ‘neath London’s rains,
And husbands too – sometimes in the same bed!
But wives in actualitas are pains;
We’ll view those in potentia instead.
Those maidens tripping down the sooty lanes
To drink from pitchers deep of cocktails red
Or green or blue. The things these girls imbibe!
They are a very godsend for the scribe.
See! Here they come! Post-feminist each one,
Empowered by the magazines who learn
In time that girls just do wanna have fun
And tell them they can have it. Now they turn
From public sector desks towards the sun,
(Or posts at private equity concerns).
They hit the bars in wave on wave of shoes,
But every Juliet needs Romeo,
Each Eloise still an Abelard must pluck,
As Laura needed Petrarch, even so,
Her nectar for Renaissance man to suck.
So too, these girls need boys - and there they go!
They preen their plumes and pray to Lady Luck
They’ll make successful hunters. After all,
There’s still some trophy space upon the wall.
It’s Friday night. The city is replete.
From Uxbridge down to Brixton they’ll be drunk.
They’re pissed in Palmer’s Green and Baker Street,
In Elephant they’re all elephant’s trunk.
From Cockfosters to Croydon drunken feet
Will skip as someone passes round the skunk.
What joy to see a rising generation
Choose problem drinking as an occupation.
Now chain-pub jack-tars up and take their leave.
This coast was never good, the tide a fight.
The Ship of Fools now strikes le bateau ivre
And shipwrecked sailors vomit in the night.
See, Danny’s puked and Matt’s about to heave!
Now Mel and Suze both blow chunks at the sight.
The slaves below decks chunder in the alley
While gastric reflux chains them to the galley.
But we can freeze the action for a start,
Cast Oberon-like spells upon the day.
We’ll turn now into statues by our art
This Hogarth canvas changed to mummer’s play.
And in this tableau emphasise a part;
A shy, still-sober sylph. What? Shall we say
A female of the species who has yet
A shred of self-respect with which to bet?
For love’s like cards, and nearly the same thing;
A devil’s picture-book to the unskilled.
Now find the lady, now act like a king.
Now jack it in and go and buy some pills.
Or lay the queen, and stake your everything.
Or fold your hand and get coked to the gills.
Or wait with held breath, never looking back,
To find the card you know is in the pack.
But we must leave our frieze. We’ve had our fun.
We’ll bring our statuary back to life.
In art, just as in life, things left undone
Are present guarantors of future strife,
And acts not brought to happy conclusion
Can leave a scar as deep as any knife.
We’ll leave our coy coquette to keep our own
Appointment on the other side of town.
Now rise up with us, every mother’s son,
Into the air and down into the ground.
We’ll ride the tube like bullets from a gun.
Along the ice-slick rails we’ll steam and pound.
We’re blowing east, towards the rising sun,
But where we go no sunlight will be found.
Though past Mile End, inside Victoria Park,
A Sunny Jim awaits us in the dark.
So swing the iron gates and be inlet.
Victoria herself once stepped this way.
An empire where the sun would never set
Personified diminutively. They
Were never more correct than those who bet
The monarch seemed illuminate that day.
But royal light could not dispel the shade
That in our hero’s heart its beds has made.
I call him hero for he is my man.
The chosen one and, if it’s all the same,
What though his faults shine through for all they can?
It’s them that make him live up to the name
Of hero. Ah, but this too-short time span
Requires that infamy stand in for fame.
We live still in Elizabethan times.
Let’s cheer, not jeer, Elizabethan crimes.
Our boy is here on business, plies a trade,
A sink-estate apothecary he.
Supplier of the best narcotics made,
Of coke and skunk and speed and ecstasy.
He’ll give you ketamine (once he’s been paid).
He’ll even get you heroin. You see,
He holds a capitalist tenet firm;
That folk have too much money. Look and learn!
By feral appointment he supplies the gear.
The journalists and media babes who buy
His wares approve. They love the thrill of fear,
They’ll gladly brave the darkness to get high.
They like to meet real people, and the peer
Group with which they, each one, identify
Thinks dealers are the salt of honest earth.
(The dealers struggle to contain their mirth).
Another evening’s trade has left for port
And we have seen our boy at his profession.
But now we’ll leave him to his night-time sport;
A chain of drinks and drugs in quick succession.
Well, one last look. There, in the darkness caught.
As dark a soul as ever took confession.
He seems quite made of night, part shade. In fact,
I think we’ll leave before we are attacked.
We’ll quit the park, forsake this cursed ground,
And head back to the city, racked with thought.
A heroine and hero we have found
And now can bring together. But we ought
To take care our bold match-making is sound,
Remember poesy lessons we were taught.
There just aren’t many words that rhyme with love.
Just dove and glove. Oh, and above. And shove.
We’ll seek a perch to wonder if we can’t
Conspire to bring our ingénues together.
Should we transport them to a restaurant
Or place them in the midst of sweat and leather?
Or maybe just leave them to gallivant
And find if they are birds of common feather.
We’ll find a spot to think on what we’ve done,
Like Milton’s Satan brooding on the sun.
St. Paul’s still boasts its palatinate dome,
So here we’ll rest. It does bear pointing out
The poet has a choice of where to roam.
Authorial omnipresence, have no doubt,
Finds rules of time and space a brand-new home
And turns the laws of physics all about.
We’ll sit up here to wait for verses witty
And watch electric storms light up the city.
A rose, so we are told by William S,
By any other name would smell as sweet.
Whatever. Lack of proof may cause distress
And leave poor Allegory on the street.
But names may still be portals, none the less,
For our two changelings, just about to meet.
(Bill’s rose is odourless to me. A shame.
My sinuses are on the blink again).
He, Edmund Tuppence, his own servant all.
She, Sally Quicklake, wanting naught but love.
Oh, now I’ve gone and done it. I’m appalled.
I’ll need the few poor rhymes I note above.
There’s one. The poets cheat! The words they maul!
Like prove and grove and stove – and even Hove!
My poverty of rhyme will now be uplit
(And doubtless I’ll be damned for this poor couplet).
We are now further forward, heaven-blessed.
These names will single out this fated pair.
We’ll watch them now as Friday lays to rest
The alcoholic corpses, they who dare
To drink. Our pair? I venture to suggest
She sheds nocturnal tears; he gasps for air.
And as the dawn signs in another day,
We sense the part that destiny must play.
It’s Saturday a.m. and heads have rolled
Along with eyes and every other part.
The ferryman will now his hand unfold
To take your coin. The palpitating heart
(Post-atrial fibrillation, truth be told)
Plays arrhythmic percussion when it starts.
But hardy souls already fill the snug
To fill the graves they’ve previously dug.
But if it’s not too great an imposition
We’ll spend the morn with Sally, hear her sighs.
She’ll brush her hair while in a prone position
And wipe the sleepy-dust from out her eyes.
She’ll lunch with friends. Romantic inquisition!
They all have boyfriends; all her chums have guys.
There comes a bitter thought – it’s love, remember -
To wish those guys all burnt come next November.
But now she’s dressed and made up – all for us!
The world prepares itself for Sally’s visit.
She leaves her neat apartment, takes a bus,
And goes to meet her friends for lunchtime fizz. It
Has been noted she’s no soak. What fuss!
It really isn’t so surprising, is it?
She parties without London’s drunk detritus,
Prefers sobriety and won’t invite us.
Mark Gullick is a philosophy PhD from London, England, who went on holiday to Costa Rica four years ago and forgot to go home. He now works there as a musician. He blogs at https://postcardsfromtraumaville.blogspot.com/