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Lay for the Day
7th February

1812, Portsmouth, England: the birth of Charles Dickens.

This ambulatory poem begins on Lant Street in the Borough, where Dickens lodged in 1824 while his father, a debtor, was in prison nearby. Chapter 32 of Pickwick Papers opens with a sardonic survey of that street.

Red Cross Way

From where the debtors’ prison was
with back to the dark lane Dickens lodged in
when the Marshalsea held his dad
straight ahead
down Redcross Way to the rivershore
where once were the wharves and Bankside’s wonders,
whores and stages and bloodstained baiting pits,
sun on the left lights blossom in the plotted gardens,
formerly grounds of a great house.

Suffolk Place, that was home
to Henry VIII’s little sister
and later Royal Mint
for that Fidei Defensor
has left no sign of itself
but a planted corner of peace:
a tall, lopped cherry beside the flats
and primary school
with broad white buddleia.

An office block of coffee-coloured glass
replaces the manor at the junction,
the battlements that half-adorn it
above the cottages and hedgerows sketched
by Anthony van Wyngaerde,
Flemish freelance
(or an agent of Philip of Spain).

The lane with the Templar name
follows the line of its western wall.
What knights had Brandon, Charles, the Duke of Suffolk,
the jousting-butt and brother-in-law of the king
to ward his palace,
stronghold of what lords went before?

The palimpsest of leaseholds
and old paths following topography
make all routes jink or fork or curve.
This way is different,
to the former Dead Man’s Place
at the Bishop of Winchester’s postern gate.

Right, to where the legions traded
and the fair was held by the priory,
prosperity spread
as a cope’s hem over blessed feet –
to Borough Market, forklifts shifting
walls of food in the small hours.
Left, round the back of the Clink
to the Anchor Inn and the water.

Beside where people streamed and are streaming still
to the crossing
and on to the place on the northern shore
where power beats like blood in a temple,
out here in the primeval suburb
the lager drinkers congregate
to mutter philosophy in twos and threes.

I wonder did the Nine Day Queen walk here,
Lady Jane Grey, when these were walled demesnes?
Duchess of Suffolk, Queen of France
and briefly, at sixteen, England’s,
beheaded by Mary
the First, alias Bloody.

Some such innocence pervades
this much-divided acre.
Car park, parklet, grove and playground
have cover enough, and headroom
for a sleek brace of pigeon
and songbirds of the country, tits or finches,
mix their warbling
with the blackbirds as usual, singing free.

One week an immaculate black family
were camping in their car beneath the trees,
mother, father, two small children.
Washing hangs on balconies,
the pupils whirl and shriek, conspire in bunches;
and now and then the branches
shed their slight pink fall of bloom
as days grow longer.


John Gibbens
from Sand of the Thames


The Lay Reader: an archive of the poetic calendar