'From his Childhood' is a fantasy about a severe governess or nanny remembered from somebody's early years. A woman full of moral maxims and stern instructions and her influence is destructive though the storyteller has eventually grown out of her. She is not my own nanny or governess - I had no such thing - this woman is, if you like, a Thatcherite figure.

From his Childhood


Rain, said Nanny, Rain is to test our courage,
Dirt is to test our cleanliness,
Hunger our patience,
And night is to test our fear of darkness.
But rain is to test our courage.

That was because it rained all the time very hard
where we lived as children,
In the house with the nineteen rooms of forbidden books
(To test how we could conquer the thirst to read)
And a few permitted books in the sitting rooms,
But Nanny in a book-lined room we might never enter,
In a turret above the lawn where the croquet hoops
Were feet deep in water for very much of the time.

But Courage, said Nanny, wellingtons on,
Backs up, chins up, and best foot forward
In a long line, holding tightly on to each other
– Out!

So the small but courageous band of us
Paddled hand-in-hand onwards,
Nanny first, me second,
Then the third and fourth, diminishing in size
To the very smallest who came infallibly last,
Head just above water.

And as we sadly struggled, the small cold hand
Of my youngest brother
Slipped out of the grasp of the one next above him in age.
And when that next one tired, her hand
Released the fingers of the sibling senior to her,
And the line fell gradually apart,
Leaving me
Waving frantically after Nanny, who was far ahead
And had almost disappeared.

But Courage!

The call of Nanny rang distantly over
The widening waters in the dark,
And returned in echoes from the other shore.
The waterfowl answered in imitation and unison
To comfort each other

And Nanny’s cry merged into theirs,
Growing fainter and fainter in the rain until
It became at last an everyday sound you hear
And think little about for very much of the time.

from Collected Poems (Enitharmon, 2006), copyright © Alan Brownjohn, 2006, used by permission of the author

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