He’s fallen out with everyone,
including God, but hasn’t had a rift with China.
Yet he’s set his face against renewal.
‘Getting near the end now.’
He never speaks of death or dying.
At ninety-eight too late to start anew?
‘Aye, getting near the end.’
What can he mean?
A Five Year Plan whose targets he can’t meet?
Is he thinking of Taiwan?
Another link in the Great Chain of Beijing.
They’ll repossess it,
just like they did Hong Kong,
toying with America.
All the more good cause to sign
along the dotted line?
Five more years’ deliverance by airmail.
Not filtered by the West
through the Guardian digest
but straight from the red, red heart of the world.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2007. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2007 was Alan Spence.
I wish I had met Willy Maley's father. I've read about his life - an unflinching, often courageous, loyalty to socialist principles. This poem is a fitting tribute to the man and his ideals, delivered with love and wry humour. (Try reading that opening line-and-a-half without smiling.) And who gives voice to those principles in this age? We're caught between the death-throes of one empire: America, and the birth-pangs of another: China. Getting near the end, says the old man, the words resonating, double-edged. And the last line is perfect, stays in the memory, a reminder of why that magazine subscription was taken out in the first place.
I was at my Mammy's sometime in the year 2000 - I called it Mammy's before Daddy died, though he acted like he was in charge. Daddy was ninety-two at the time. The original poem had him 'At ninety-two too late to start anew?' When it was accepted for publication in 2006 I updated the line. When I told Daddy it was time to renew the subscription to The Beijing Review (formerly The Peking Review) he said not to bother because it was 'getting near the end now'. He used to predict China would force a confrontation with the West. I was already thinking of a poem and it came to me in a handful of half-formed lines.
Daddy was a cheaper-by-the-dozen man; bulk-buying goods from communist countries, tasty jam and batteries that soon ran out. He kept the faith with China. I'm one of nine children brought up in a communist household with The Soviet Weekly alongside The Sunday Post. When the last of the left-wing bookshops closed Daddy still managed to get his hands on his beloved red rag. I'd cut out the coupon and send it off with a postal order.
I showed this poem to colleagues teaching on the Creative Writing Masters. Philip Hobsbaum, Adam Piette and Dilys Rose made encouraging noises. I'm sure it was written under the influence of other poets. Dylan Thomas's 'A Refusal To Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London' must have been behind the title. Don Paterson and Tony Harrison's poems about their fathers might have been on my mind. Paterson's 'An Elliptical Stylus' goes straight to the heart. I may have been mindful too of William Empson's 'Just a Smack at Auden', with its refrain 'Waiting for the end boys, waiting for the end.' My last line echoes MacDiarmid, Krassivy and John Maclean, 'A flash of red in a world all prison grey'. That was my father all over the back. I never showed him the poem. It just wasn't relevant.
When Daddy died, his papers consisted of two passports, one issued in 1930, just after his own father died, when he was emigrating to America, the other issued in 1996, when he returned to Spain - his first time out of the country for over half a century - to revisit Jarama, the scene of his capture almost sixty years earlier. The rest was photographs and a photographic memory. Books were to be borrowed and loaned, read and retained in the mind, not the home. When we were young, he'd bring a pile of paperbacks from Gilmorehill Book Exchange and give us a week to read them before they went back to the store. A few weeks before he died, I took him a printout of the latest Beijing Review, now online. He liked that.