The Graveyard Watch parts 4-6 (2011)

At Four O’Clock


This is not that night

Which follows the day

And is livened by crickets

And the calling of babes

And the swearing of parents awake

In bleary tenderness.


This is not that night we passed away

Some winter past

In contemplation of the heavens as they are arrayed

In the curve of your neck

And the fit of your fingers  in mine.

There were fireworks in the sky, then

And angels in our eyes.


This is not the night.

This is dark without time

And depth outside the span

Of sounding line or mind.


This is the endless

The Chaos come again,

That silenced the giants

And awed Olympians

And mocked the Israelites

As they contemplated the things

Nearest infinity.


And in this place

Spaceless and still

I can see in fullness

The lives now passed

And gain intimation

That one might choose

To hold my own

In similar aspect.



When at last we are spent

When strength of hand relents

And the lungs will no more pull

Against disorder, then

As the crimson light shines

We will think on remembrance,

We will think on time.


Is it mercy, then, or cruelty

To be, or have been alive?

Is it cowardice, then or courage

To have seen, then ripped out your eyes?

Or is it that distinction itself is the lie

And the truth is inscrutable

No matter if it lies

In the care of a distant God

Or in the clattering of dice.


Could it be that truth is inscrutable

But we each of us must still decide?



When morning comes,

We will furnish the dead with lilies

And lay them down so mud or fire

Might bring them home.


We will say,

Whatever words are said

In this the absolute extremity

Of our languages.


And we will place,

Like waypoints on a chart

The events that seem to mark

The love and hate and fear and grind and joy and glory

That was their actual lives.


That much can be said

For a simple service,

That lets silence speak for the dead

And does not pretend

That the life now committed

Means anything more

Than the love of those here gathered

To bring earth to earth.


And the love of that

Which one fine day

Will come in trumpets

To all of us return.

At Five O’Clock

And at this distance, the traffic sounds like water

And the tiny noises of the night

Flow singingly and soft

Out of stillness and in

To another yet another

Yet another day.


The faithful, they wake to pray

But I have not slept

And stay in dissipating vigil

Still grinding out the last stale hours

Of yesterday.

When did this day start?

How many minutes and months

Since I laid down head

In rest or in prayer?


And when will come tomorrow?

The day of the dog.


Not soon, I suspect.

That day is far from dawning yet,

And the longest hour has come.


At Six O’Clock

From the instant all this was made,

In fire,

From that instant all has decayed

And will end at last in silence,

And ice.


But still the light returns

As blood returns

To fingers made numb

By creeping cold.


And life returns

As life will return

Though those we loved are gone.


It returns unforgiving and we must carry on

As insults to entropy

And affronts to chaos.

Pushing against the gradient

Though it leads us at last to nothing.


Between here and there is what?

A life, I guess, for the living,

A dignity briefly wrestled

From the fingers of the second law.


A dignity and your breathing,

And the light, at last, of the rising sun.


The Graveyard Watch – Parts 1-3 (2010)

After last week’s political posts I’m returning to poetry. I wrote and deleted a post on Saturday about the riots, but had the distinct feeling it added very little to what I had already written. The political blame game is in full swing and the battle lines between those who blame the rioters and those who blame society are drawn. I’m not up for adding to the noise just because I seem to have developed an audience.

This is series of poems I wrote over Christmas and New Year following several deaths in the family, it attempts to deal with death, chaos and meaning. I’m posting the first three parts now, and will put up the others in a couple of days. I want to apologise to Henry, who took the time to look over the whole series, for not posting a version that incorporated his insights and edits. I left the poems for a while and when I came back to them, they were no longer “alive” to me so I decided to stick with what I’d written in the first place even though it is weaker than it might have been if I had made some of his changes.

The Graveyard Watch

At Twelve O’Clock

In your red-rimmed eyes I saw

Accusation and a man

Less able, more aged than he

That took your vows one August past

And cherished you more

Than I now know how.


And as you pass through sobbing sleep

The one release

From eruptive grieving

And as you dream a summer dream

(That I can tell by your suddenly smiling)

And as the wind whips against the eves

And the sky fills up with iron filings

I sit alone, unwilling,

And keeping by fag light

The graveyard watch.


At One O’Clock

I am done with aphorisms about death

Each one equally unreminiscent

Of intelligence

On a subject where nothing is said

With experience of the event.


I am done with the cliché and the pet phrase

The bon mot that begets

A dozen permutations

And a laugh at every one.


And I am done with the exasperation

The not knowing how to feel

The instant of powerless recognition

And the slithering re-authentication

Of the knowledge it won’t happen to me.


I am done with Death and I am happy

To let Death do and leave Death be.


At Two O’Clock

In the end it matters not which way

Blows the wind that bends us.

Not a jot the strength of storm

That breaks us.


(If, that is we are broken by storm

And not by incessant dripping worn

To a sediment of ourselves)


It matters not how hard, how blind

Became the loving eyes

That didn’t know her when they saw her

Could not recognise what was taken

And what was left alive

By the crash and the fall -like a skyful of water –

Of time


It matters not what words were passed

What blows,

What slights were said so lightly

And felt so hard

That even decades did not weary you

Of grudging them.


And though you do not weary of grudging them,


This too will pass.


At Three O’Clock

Music was for me always

Sullen notes and little more;

A thick-fingered alchemy

A knowledge that leaves me

Clicking poor metronome

While the song itself soars

Spreading high and wild.


And as such there was always

Nothing to tease out the keen

Of a heart at full strain

And draw it like wool or wire

Are drawn into cogency

And out of gnarly yarn.


There was nothing to believe

Against the evidence

Of a slow insurrection

By the forces of noise

And no one voice heard

Against the confusion

That threw itself like a tower toward the sun

And ended, as I have

With the breaking of language

And the confounding of tongues.


There was none

Among my talents that could join –

High and wild – the funeral song

Nor keep its rhythm

No Revolution (The State of Exception)

No Revolution (The State of Exception)

This is no seventeen or sixty-eight

This is something we’ve never seen before

Seen everywhere at once.


This is the uprising that happens

When pygmy politicians have passed the final buck

Agitators given up

And firebrands gone home to their beds.


It is leaderless, aimless and animal

Its manifesto unknown

Even to those

Who are burning on the street.


This is the insurrection that nobody wants to own

Unlike all those trainers and plasmas

All those smart phones

That call from shop windows

And beg us to take them home

By cash in hand, or payment plan

Or any means necessary.


It does us little credit

Now there’s no credit left

To borrow away all consequence

And stay one step ahead of debt.


This is the culture of no responsibility

The self-fulfilling assurance of no-such-thing-as-society

Of weapons never found and wars that never end

Of taxes never enacted, because you know they’ll be avoided

By those who can best afford.


This is the promised end of an ASBO education,

Of broken homes and second homes

Of phone hacks and bailouts and duck-moats

Pay-per-view porn expenses and illegal house arrest.


This is the state of exception

Where you can’t see badges and faces

Of those who police by consent.

This is the constant evocation

Of the latest existential threat

That means the law will keep bending

Though Tomlinson and Duggan are dead

And there will never, ever be justice

For Jean Charles de Menezes.


There can never, ever be justice

Is what this eruption says

There is no-one to lead the revolution we need

So take what you can carry, grab what you can get.



This really is my last word on the subject. If you like it share it around



The Causal Disconnect -Thoughts on the UK riots

Like some game of civil disobedience whack-a-mole, even as  extra coppers are drafted in to London, there is trouble in the shires. Manchester, Liverpool, Wolverhampton and West Bromwich have all seen theft and arson and in Nottingham a police station was attacked with firebombs. Such violence deserves to be condemned, but condemnation should not take the place of analysis in what are is, after all worst civil unrest seen in Britain in decades.

Unlike many people, I think the police have coped fairly well (after a slow start) with violence that is more sporadic, widespread and dynamic than anything seen on our streets before and that confounds their riot training which is mostly geared towards managing organised protests that turn sour. Sadly the same cannot be said of the politicians who stand behind them.

The response across the entire political spectrum as been to explain these events as mindless violence and criminality, arson without reason, just theft and vandalism. The few who have suggested that there might be underlying causes have been accused of political opportunism,  justifying the rioters and giving succor to their vandalism (revealingly in that order).

Unfortunately these are not actually explanations. If it really is no more than mindless violence with no actual cause, we must conclude that a significant portion of the UK population are intrinsically criminal. This sits quite easily with some, who have been quick to characterise the unrest as racial and ethnic in origin.  So, 30 years after Brixton and Toxteth, we are back to the argument that black people are basically savages who periodically kick off because it is in their nature to resent the yoke of civilisation. Or to put it another way, just 12 years after the Lawrence inquiry found the police to be massively institutionally racist, we are assuming that all forms of institutional race bias have been eliminated from our society (even if we don’t touch on the racial aspect, we are still left with nothing better than the Victorian notion of “criminal classes.” And in the 21st Century, that isn’t really good enough).

There are a number of problems with this appealingly simplistic theory:

1. Not all of the rioters, looters, vandals and taggers along are black. Reports indicate that while the majority of the original Tottenham rioters were of Afro-Carribean origin, as the rioting has spread, it has taken on a United Colours of stealing from Benetton aspect. The only thing these people seem to have in common is that they are angry and that they are nicking stuff.

2. Even if we assume that some people are basically just criminals, we find no explanation as to why their intrinsic criminality has chosen this moment to express itself. If they have always been criminals and their actions have nothing to do with social or economic circumstances, is it mere coincidence that they are rioting at the same time as massive government cuts begin to hit home, unemployment skyrockets and the country looks set for a double-dip recession? The prevailing lines being trotted out by the government would have you believe so. They would also have you believe that the fact Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world is utterly unrelated to the fact that people are stealing consumer goods they used to be able to buy on credit but can now no longer afford.

3. Despite the hyping up of the theft of plasmas and trainers, which makes for great TV, a lot of the looting has been of basic items like food, clothes and nappies. I found this picture on a Facebook page called “Looting fail” above a charming Planet of the Apes mashup entitled “Rise of the Retards:”

And yes, it is easy to mock the idea that someone would break into a shop and steal Tescos Value rice. Unless of course you stop to examine the proposition “Why would someone break into Tescos and steal rice?” Possibly because we are seeing the “rise of the retards,” an a-causal attack by criminal idiots on every aspect of our society. Possibly there are deeper issues here. I’ll leave it to you to decide.

4. These riots have spread, and quickly, to other parts of the UK. Whatever their root causes, they are not limited to Tottenham, London or the black community. Now, perhaps I have a rose-tinted view of human nature, but I’m disinclined to believe that active, engaged, happy members of society who have hope in the future go on orgies of arson and pillage. I’m also disinclined to believe that some people are by nature criminals, the only conclusion left is that underlying social issues across the whole of the UK play a part here. The alternatives seem to be either deep pessimism about human nature or racism, and I’m not entirely comfortable with either.

Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t a massive element of brutality, criminality and selfishness at play here; the footage of a young Malaysian kid being helped up by some rioters who then mug him will play around the world for weeks to come, and  for many it exemplifies the anti-social nature of the rioters, but to entirely absolve society at large of blame is a bizarre stance to take. Individuals are responsible for their own actions, but society is at least partially responsible for creating situations where brutality, criminality and selfishness seem like a good idea.

In all of this, there has been little coming from the rioters themselves, a tendency to beat up reporters and steal there equipment playing a major part in this. I’ve found a couple of interesting interviews, though, one by American network NBC, the other by the Guardian.

NBC: “Here’s a sad truth, expressed by a Londoner when asked by a television reporter: Is rioting the correct way to express your discontent?

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

The TV reporter from Britain’s ITV had no response. So the young man pressed his advantage. “Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard,  more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Guardian: “One young bystander said the violence was because young people felt they had no voice. “Things are really hard at the moment; there is a lot of frustration and tension. This is our way of making a point in as direct as way as possible. People don’t believe the government anymore since the Iraq war. Now, because of the internet, they are able to think for themselves. This is a response to their frustration.”

The evocation of the Iraq war as a pivot point is interesting here. I’ve long felt that we, as a nation, refused to address the sheer level of the affront that was being lied to and dragged into a pointless war. Iraq ruptured our society and snapped the basic belief that we are governed rather than ruled.

This is an opinion that cuts across the political divide. The Right blames the “Socialist” New Labour government and its utopian fantasies, the Left blames the same government, but sees them as spineless right-wing patsies of the US imperium. Regardless of your political standpoint, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the way we went to war broke the bond of trust between the people and the politicians.

The last few years, far from enabling a healing of this rupture have seen its exacerbation, a financial crash that was caused by the an elite who do not appear to have paid for their recklessness and law-breaking, an expenses scandal that confirmed the popular superstition that all politicians are petty criminals (in 2010 it was revealed that for years many British members of Parliament has been supplementing their incomes by doing things like renovating their homes at cost to the taxpayer and selling them on for personal profit) and cuts that appear to be implemented by a government that couldn’t win a majority but is still driving home the most far-reaching changes to our society since the institution of the welfare state after WW2.

But, we are told by “Labour,” Conservative and Lib-Dem alike, this has nothing to do with anything. The rioters are too stupid to understand such nuanced arguments. They are thugs whose behaviour is intrinsic to their criminal nature and need not be explored in terms of anything so crass as causality.

As a Muslim, I’ve heard this argument before. 9/11 was a similar event, no cause, certainly not Israel/Palestine, American foreign policy or any of the other things mentioned as grievances by the people who carried out the attacks. Similarly, the 7/7 attacks were not directly related to the fact that Britain re-elected the government that caused the Iraq war, and anyone who tells you different is deluded – even if they are the leader of the bombers who carried out the attacks laying out atheir last communication with the world before carrying out a huge atrocity.

Now, those grievances do not justify violence, but ignoring grievances because we don’t like the methods by which they are expressed, and refusing to engage with even the possibility that the people we are dealing with have their reasons, no matter how twisted or confused is not a step towards addressing any problem.

This is the causal disconnect at the heart of our politics. It is hard to know whether it is a con-trick or whether those in power actually believe that everyone who disagrees with them is incapable of reason by virtue of their disagreement. Whatever the truth, it leaves us as a society ill-placed to address issues of social discontent.

And that is the real tragedy here. I’ve nailed my political colours firmly to the mast and I expect a lot of people to disagree with me simply because of that. Ultimately, I’m not concerned about winning arguments between left and right, I’m concerned at the logical cul-de-sac that our entire political class appears happy to have entered. I’m proud of this country, proud of its long tradition of critical self-analysis. Proud of the fact that our police don’t carry guns, proud of the fact that thousands turned out to clean up after last night’s carnage.

There is, however, a bigger clean-up job at hand, one that will require at least some acknowledgement that riots don’t generally happen in a vacuum and that no matter how inarticulately expressed, there is a sense of grievance among many of the urban poor that needs to be addressed. If we can do that, we are still capable, intelligent citizens living in a dynamic and growing society. If we dismiss this as just thuggery, without cause or motive, then the adjective of the moment – “mindless” – applies to every single one of us.

I’m gonna get mine – Thoughts on the London riots

The capital is in flames. In Haringey, Ealing, Croydon (Croydon!) Lewisham, gangs of young people are wreaking havoc, setting fire to shops, bottling the police, causing mayhem and giving vent to a wild, manic rage.

The Guardian’s London blogger, Dave Hill has posted an excellent early analysis here:

And knowing the risks of adding my tuppence worth, I’m wading in with a few thoughts. I’m sure I’ll be accused of defending the rioters, I’m not, I’m as scared and horrified as the rest of us, but fear and horror are not articulate responses. The fact is, these kids are rioting right now, they weren’t rioting last year or the year before and something has triggered this, because by and large, people don’t take to the streets, steal and set things on fire.

There are a number of different contexts to this, all of which need to be considered together. The first of the riots were triggered by the police shooting of 29 year old Mark Duggan, an incident for which the police have now apologised. Confidence in the police, across all levels of society, has been eroded massively in the last decade. The deaths at the hands of the police of Jean Charles de Menezes and Iain Tomlinson, the revelation that police officers from the notorious Territorial Support Group routinely covered their faces and badges when going into action, the News of the World Hacking inquiry, all have contributed to the sense that the police are not to be trusted, are working to their own agenda and are next to impossible to hold to account. Add to this the fact that while the population in general may have moved on from the Macpherson report, for many in the black and minority ethnic communities, the institutional  police racism the report identified in the wake of the murder of Stephen Lawrence is still keenly felt. It doesn’t even matter if such institutional bias exists anymore, it has become part of the narrative of grievance and mistrust.

Another key aspect is the Con-Dem government’s blase attitude to the cuts it is making. They’ve talked of sharing the pain, of being in it together, but there seems to be little suffering on the part of the super-rich. The bankers whose reckless disregard for, well anything except their own short term profit, caused the economic crisis, have got off scott free. In many cases, the same people who caused the mess have been put in charge of fixing it. Add to that the fact that the Tories who are driving the cuts agenda didn’t even win an outright majority and you have a recipe for frustration, anger and discontent. Again, it is not the actual politics that matters so much as the perception. And for teenagers on the streets, being told by Old Etonians that their youth clubs are going to close, that they won’t be able to afford university and that there won’t be any jobs at the other side doesn’t create a positive vibe.

That isn’t just my leftist politics speaking, here’s an article from the Torygraph dated September last year:

Then there’s stuff like the expenses scandal, which compounded the sense that politicians are just a bunch of chancers in it for what they can get. The fact that the wounds from the way we went into Iraq have not healed also plays a part, the whole sorry affair gave an entire generation the impression that no matter how many people stand up, The Man does what he wants.

Finally, there is the Arab Spring, which showed people around the world that even in some of the world’s most repressive societies, social media offer a way to congregate and organise that is very hard for the authorities to counter. Of course, our society is very, very different, but the key lesson is  that social media can bring people together and that if enough of you get together it is very hard for anyone to do anything to stop you. Whether it is peaceful revolution or an orgy of looting and arson is beside the point. The fact is that the tools are there and they make this business very difficult to police.

Now, you may ask how much of this has actually filtered down to the teenagers rampaging on our streets, and the answer is probably very little. But the basic  messages do get through (even if they’re not, and sometimes especially if they’re not, true). And the messages of the last few years are these: The world economy is buggered; The police are thugs who do what they want; Politicians are thieves who don’t care about ordinary people; the bankers got away with massive theft and now we’re paying for it; young people, especially young black people, have no future because of all of the above.

So they aren’t on the streets waving placards- what would be the point? We already know protest doesn’t work. Instead they’re following the example of the crooked politicians and casino capitalists, they’re grabbing what they can while the going is good and gambling on the premise that if enough of them do it, they can’t all get busted. Also, the weather has been pretty good of late and school’s out for summer.

A lot of people have said that this isn’t political. And in the sense of slogans, banners and manifestos, that is indeed the case. But in a society that privileges property and wealth above all else, what more political act is there than violating property and engaging in theft?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to join the rest of London in staying up all night on twitter and hoping they don’t come my way.

On Leaving Public Service (2011)

From 2008-11 I worked as a political advisor in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. When I went into it, I was not exactly starry eyed and naive, but I was a great deal more idealistic, and in some senses more alive than I am today. While I was at LBTH, I saw my own party turn on me, I saw corruption (not just material corruption, but corruption of the soul, which is so much worse) and experienced white collar racism and Islamophobia such as I genuinely did not believe existed. It is no exaggeration to say that my experience there broke me, and several months since I had any contact with that benighted place, I’m still struggling to forget the unpleasant lessons it taught me about people and power. That said, I am determined not to forget what it taught me about the dangers of righteous anger and the seduction of making yourself into an instrument of vengeance.

This poem was written just after I left, and as the Arab spring was gaining ground, one of its central themes is the comparison between the sudden fire of revolution and the grind of trying to do good work day-in-day-out. It also touches on the difficulties of fighting the good fight when everyone around you (including your own side) are playing dirty. It is more personal than much of what I’ve written in the last couple of years, and perhaps it is a weaker poem for it, but I do think it has something to say for those of us who have not experienced big victories, who know that we are unlikely to see great upheavals and the flowering of a more just world in our rich and complacent societies but are still compelled to try for a less unjust world.

On Leaving Public Service

Is this , then,  how the warriors feel?

All straightness of back and lightness of step

And a purpose that animates muscle

Into more than just animal flesh.


Hard luck, then, that war was not how I earned

My place among the glorious dead.

I did not go fierce like Afghan candles,

Lighting the world with their blasphemy

Nor did I rise like Bouazzizi

For my name to be etched in a racial memory

And my body wreathed round in jasmine and myrrh


Hard luck at how I was tried

By a lengthier justice

Hard luck how the case was weighed

By precedent and incident

How by minutes, seconds and motions

The sentence carried my life away.


It was there,

In the theatre of the debate

Among lawyers and orators

(That straight of back and light of step)

I closed my eyes

And kneeled

And prayed.




Juvenilia- Said and Done (2005) and Six (2005)

This are the only two love poems I’ve ever written to the woman that eventually became my wife. It is the only one because (as the poem itself says) words fail me.

Said and Done

When I first saw you speak

Your teeth gripped the air

And your hair was like snakes and devils in curls.

The whirls of leaf litter that played across the streets

Whipped hard as the ground

In the wind blowing bitter northeast.

Whatever I heard was whipped away

But what you say is said in the cut of your face

In the dance and the race of eyes and lips.

What words slip away with the leaves in the gale

Have become, after all only leaves in the gale

And the wind can take the language that fails

Now that it fails me.


When freezing midnight hangs on my breath

And all of my life of the yes in your eyes

In this time of strife

I see the men I was and will and ought and might.

When now and when contest the ground

And then and then the sky

And I see the shine in shadow

And I see the depth in light

That is the time to have these eyes.

When death leaks across the great divide

And seepls black into the banks on the other side

When the touch that breaks or halves of heals

Is breathy soft and starry light

That is the time to have these eyes

That is the time to be alive.