They stand in front of bridges, tunnels, boats,

their working empire, proud of all it meant:

prosperity and progress, testament

to a Providential age. Intrigued, one notes

how quaintly they’re turned out – top-hats, frock-coats,

mutton-chop whiskers. But such style points don’t dent

their confidence they’ll forge their way, unbent,

through to a dawn their industry promotes.


I suppose that one day we shall seem as strange

to unborn eyes as these stiff, distant men

who gave us our foundations: in exchange

our doubts, our tracksuits. How will they judge us, when

they wonder why all we did was arrange

the past to give us meaning, now out of then?


They pose in front of bridges, engines, boats,

their effort’s empire, proud its triumphs meant

progress and trade, enduring testament

to their covenanted age.  Impressed, one notes

formidably formal garb – top-hats, frock-coats;

well-groomed, bravura whiskers. Life’s left no dent –

their mission statement is to stride unbent

into a future their iron will promotes.


Our future’s fucked: mad mullahs, Climate Change,

no gods we can believe in, no great men

to fool us into certainty . . .   How strange

their hurly-burly shift stands so still, when

their restless wills laboured to re-arrange

an England over now - lost way back then?




They preen, parading factories and boats –

their empire’s engines – proud their labours meant

traffic and profit’s compound testament

to a blessed, progressive age. Amused, one notes

how pompous period togs – top-hats, frock-coats –

match patriarchal whiskers. That doesn’t dent

their doctrine they’re to boldly go, unbent,

into an era enterprise promotes.


And when you come to think of it, how odd

our legacy from these strict, recent men

should be so small: their narrative, their God,

both gone; their limits. Instead of which? Mayhem -

our instant, Googled wisdom riding roughshod

over any faith or meaning, either now or then.


They stare at us, presenting railways, boats –

the nuts and bolts of empire, proud they meant

what they thought progress, saw as testament

to their buoyant, chosen age. Detached, one notes

the costume drama kit:  top-hats, frock-coats,

what could be stuck-on whiskers. Yet how to dent

their creed their covenant’s to strive unbent

to make a world their Maker’s will promotes?


Thank God (knock, knock . . .) we’re free of all that crap –

the double-standards, racism, the yen

to lord it over others.  That’s their rap.

Ours? Being somehow lesser than these men

for all our learning, in itself a trap –

the whole thing there means madhouse now, not then.


Their tense, bleak faces know there are no boats

able to weather the storm their proud God meant

to end all progress and be testament

to the launch of His imperious age.  One notes

the cheerless mourning gear (black hats and coats),

the grey, grave whiskers. Was there perhaps a dent

in their certainty that they’d be called, unbent,

to people the realm their rigid faith promotes?


Was it their doubt that made them toil so hard

believing that success signalled the men

who having prospered in the Lord’s vineyard

would queue up at the narrow gate, and when

He turned the key would be in the vanguard

as time expired, black-holing now with then?


Maybe it’s not so much what we now know

as that we’ve changed the contract – they at least

believed that all they built somehow increased

not just man’s empire, but would set aglow

a greater purpose, ordained long ago

and down the ages carefully policed

by Providence – thus justified, they fleeced

workers and natives!  These days, our dynamo


lacks any sense we might be playing a part

in some grand plan outside the minds of men –

we choose what gives us context, à la carte.

But endings create meaning, and so when

we split the atom was it to impart

the doomsday covenant required, both now

                                                              and then?



Published in Snakeskin 238, March 2017