The Man on the Clapham Omnibus

Watching the bowler hats and the swirls of hair
Rising unsteadily up the spiral stair,
Percy sat in the corner: Nestles milk,
Champions vinegar, Enos, puckered with talk.
He thought of his brother Alfred, fighting the Boers
The tug and snort and clatter of the horse
Took him down Whitehall: shiny railings chained
To shouting women. Sputtering as they turned
Onto Lambeth Bridge, he noticed the horse was gone,
And the driver’s top hat. All along Nine Elms Lane
Came the long dig in of the Kaiser’s war, and his wife
Watching the buses, wondering who would get off.
Uncle Alfred had decided to stay in the Cape.
Percy (now Graham) watched the skirts climb up
Ankle and shin and over the knee. Harold Lloyd
Hanging out of the windows along the Clapham Road.
On his way to watch Perry and Hobbs and Dixie Dean
He thought of the coming war, and wondered when
And exactly how: Pale clouds of poison gas.
Exploding Zeppelins flaming onto the grass?
Peeled houses showing their private parts, bath, bed
And intimate wallpaper. Clapham Common, South Side.
And change. All vote Labour. Demobbed, he looked for a name,
Derek or Peter or Bill or Ronnie or Jim.
He looked for a room; each house was a dozen bed-sits.
He picked up his rations, butter and bacon and sweets.
The traffic cluttered and chattered down Nightingale Walk,
And the bus turned round. He caught it back to Hyde Park.
The skirts had climbed to the thigh. In Grosvenor Square
He got elbowed and shoved by a girl with a bouncing pair
In a T-shirt. Then to Wapping and White Hart Lane
To rough up the fuzz, or the blacks, or the Chelsea fans.
Jim lit up and damaged his health. He sat back and thought,
It’s not what it was; and it’s bloody well not what it ought,
What with Pakis and students and scabs and pigs and women,
And fifty pence just to get to Clapham Common.

uncollected, first published in The Spectator (1990), copyright © Laurence Lerner 1990; private recording, London, 2 October 1987, copyright © the Estate of Laurence Lerner 1987, used by permission of the author's Estate

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