About the poet
Tom Vaughan is a former British diplomat who has served in the Middle East, Africa, and the US, and whose career has also included experience of conflict zones such as Afghanistan and the Balkans. He continues to work on international affairs.
Tom worked as a journalist before graduating from Exeter University and completing post-graduate studies at Oxford. His novel, No Second Prize, based on his experience in post-colonial Zimbabwe, was published by Andre Deutsch in 1993.
Tom’s poems have been published in several magazines and anthologies. One of his poems, Proposal, first published in Orbis, was included in the BBC series/anthology Essential Poems (to Fall in Love with). Tom is a member of the Original Poets of Clapham Stanza Poetry Group, and four of his poems were included in their 2018 anthology Uncommon. Tom’s poem Beltway Blues, from his Envoy collection, was included in the Songs of Love and Loss cycle by painist/composer Sir Stephen Hough, premiered in a Wigmore Hall concert on 2 January 2023, sung by Nicky Spence.
In the words of Helena Nelson of the HappenStance Press, which published a short selection of his poetry in 2010 and a longer collection – Envoy – in 2013, Tom’s poems demonstrate that ‘elegant formalism and contemporary style can still go hand in hand’.
My Last Beer
I left my last beer in the fridge
meaning to open it tonight –
no note tells me who’s taken it.
I kid myself that it’s all right,
that sitting in this hard-earned peace
I can even taste its cool, clear gold –
but I’m not fooled. It’s so unfair.
And other drinks can’t slake the thirst
for what’s not there.
The poems in Envoy reflect Tom’s experience overseas, commenting (often with barbed wit) on people, places and the moral ambiguities of diplomatic life. His deepest concern is with the guilt carried by those whose decisions—however much they may or may not be justified—mean the death and injury of others. But the only certainty for all of us, as he concludes in Via Dolorosa, is that ‘suffering / is in the end / all we can share’.
You can download an e-copy of Envoy here.
I was in the room when we all said yes
knowing it would mean the death
of some of those we sent.
But not so many.
Which of us now would still say the same –
Some Poems of Tom Vaughan
These days, I’m treated as a difficult person:
not asked to stay, because I rise too early;
fussy with food, halfway to being a vegan;
a bore on reading Montaigne, readying for death.
I should carry a bell, to caution difficult person,
so normal people could carefully avoid me:
a freak; a failure. Embarrassing. A has-been,
best left to walk alone upon this earth.
When did I become a difficult person?
It’s not as though I’m smelly, crude, or surly.
I was never as Right as Trump or Left as Corbyn.
A standard issue baby boy, at birth.
It’s lonely, now I’m labelled difficult person,
cut out of emails, laughed at in discussion,
handled with care, best kept well out of sight.
Even my family seem to share the view
I’ve gone downhill – have coarsened, sharpened, darkened.
On the other hand, don’t think the news is crushing!
Cast out, I’ve time to read, to think, to write,
ignore the rules, transgress instilled taboos,
wear oddball clothes, and when anyone will listen
say what I want. To see things like an alien,
without the taught assumptions we call sight,
as if for the first time, completely other, new –
their pristine weirdness for the blackballed few.
So maybe you should mull being difficult too . . .
Published HQ Poetry Magazine number 60, Jan-Feb 2023
Youngsters throw their lives away
in war, on drugs, in wild horseplay
the old would live theirs twice, and pray
each night to last another day
those in-between, deep in life’s fray,
don’t have the time such thoughts to weigh,
their minds on offspring or on pay
till mourning ripeness, yesterday
Published in Snakeskin 307, June 2023
The people have spoken –
but what did they say?
A dead chicken’s entrails
after all, may
provide a more certain
clue as to what
course we should follow . . .
And even if not
the other bits could be
poule for the pot.
Published in Lighten Up Online issue 61, March 2023
The Real Me
I’ve long believed in time
I’ll prove myself to be
the decent, honest person
I sense deep inside me
but today, this sinking feeling:
what if I’ve got it wrong
and all that’s an illusion
stringing me along
by soothingly suggesting
that if you knew me well
you’d think me bound for heaven –
while I lock myself in hell.
Published in HQ Poetryt Magazine number 60, Jan-Feb 2023
The Way You Look Tonight
No way, now I’m awfully low
now the world is cold
I could feel a glow just thinking of you
and the way you looked that night.
Yes you were lovely, with your smile so warm
and your cheek so soft
there was nothing for me but to love you
and the way you looked that night.
Though it’s true my tenderness grows
as fear tears me apart
while that tube that wrinkles your nose
touches my foolish heart –
aching at this brutal change,
at the practised charm
of nurses who arrange
(‘cause they’re paid to) just the way you look tonight.
Mm, mm, mm, mm
just the way you look tonight.
With apologies to Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern.
Published in Snakeskin 307, June 2023
Let’s pretend that the war
could be over, and peace
reigned even if only
this evening. O please
pick up your anger
and soak it with mine
in six large barrels
of miracle wine
and then let us dance
like lovers, as though
this land’s many meanings
didn’t all signal no
and we could make ploughshares
out of our swords
and translate the past
into one shared world
though tomorrow the daybreak
would scatter the night
and we would both stumble
into the light
where smooth olives glisten
in the warm sun
like belts of bright bullets
ripe for a gun.
Published on Hull University Middle East Study Centre website, 2022
and in Professor Raphael Cohen-Almagor’s December 2022 Politics Newsletter
In Memory of Albrecht Haushofer, author of the Moabit Sonnets, killed 23 April 1945
I’ve never had to stand up to some fascist
bully, or to camp out in a square
protesting against the blood-soaked dictator
who runs my country. No cocksure imperialist
controls my state; no simplistically earnest
missionary insists I learn a prayer
to another god than mine; no doctrinaire
ideologue has me on his blacklist.
I’ve never waited in a cold, damp cell
for the dawn when faceless men will drag me out
to the noose, or the firing squad. No brutal lout
has tortured me for days until I tell
the lies he wants to hear. I merely scout
the freedom of my chosen prison: doubt.
These days, who’s at the country’s helm? The bland
leading the bland . . . Dull politicians whose
bedtime reading is opinion polls,
so spin-controlled and focus-grouped they blend
into a compound breed. Their foes, the closed
minds of ISIS; the bureaucratic fools
who’ve messed up Europe; Putin. Each day’s news
threatening their imagined Disneyland.
But then, I’ve never tried to argue for
my own invented world, or made a stout
defence of my beliefs, or sought the clout
to shape my people’s destiny. Unsure
of all such certainties, I merely scout
the prison of my chosen freedom – doubt.
First published Acumen 84, Jan 2016
I stopped believing many years ago
even in non-belief, so why sit here
this winter morning, listening
to Sunday Worship on the radio
from St Martin-in-the-Fields? And to a choir
not so much singing as inheriting
the chanted fables generations pass
each to the next, as though they were handrails
into the future and could guide
us through a lifetime in which nothing lasts
except their solace – a thought which both appals
and fascinates, for what if such well-tried
harmonies say something tuned and true
about the way we can atone with age,
how we should be with one another,
how I both could and should have been with you,
and could still be even at this settled stage
of our long discord? What if this chance encounter
is not mere chance, but one of those rare moments
which offer insight into how the world
is more than all we see or hear
or touch – some inner, outer, spiritual endowment,
an unexpected cadence overheard,
which everyone, and everywhere, could share?
So let the old words comfort if they can –
they’ve done good service down the troubled years
helping us to come to terms
with what usually seems not just absurd, unplanned,
but a void our shocked imagination fears
and that unsung language only silence learns.
Published in The Spectator, 15 April 2017
Some of Tom’s poems have been published in the following online publications:
- Snakeskin online poetry magazine A monthly poetry webzine edited by George Simmers.
- Lighten Up Online The quarterly light verse webzine founded by Martin Parker and edited by Jerome Betts.
Get in touch with Tom here