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March 27, 2019

I practise holding still as settled sand,
although my heartbeat’s caving in so fast
I barely hear the voice, nor feel the hand
directing me to lift the blindfold and
advance towards the knot of waiting cars.


I practise mentally how I will kneel
and face the world – face you – with dignity;
imagine how the slicing blade will feel…
if I’ll succumb to crumbling consciousness,
to crippling fear, or simple agony?


I practise holding both hands in the air
and calling out my name when armed men storm
the door, obeying their commands as glare
from sudden sunlight slants through dust and din,
and certain hands propel me from the room.


I practise holding out my arms to you
as wide as any tranquil summer sea,
when ransom or rescue returns me to
the shore my trespasses had wrenched me from,
and picture you forgiving me.


But mostly I rehearse the smallest moments:
Sunday walks, the pier, the tree we climbed;
the neighbours’ girl; the wheeling starlings – omens,
surely, even then, I’d disenchant
our world and discombine the layers of time.


The cliffs, the wheeling starlings: omens, yes.
But what I did to her – to you – I did.
You know my darkness now: only my death
could free you to remember me again,
but will not free you – free her – to forgive.


Published in Earlyworks 2018 anthology


March 24, 2019

We had little to do at first
except avoiding one another’s eye
with manufactured hurt –
as one of the Russians (quietly) remarked:
translating stony silences
is harder than you’d think.

When Khrushchev demanded Ike apologise
for what was practically an act of war
Ike made like nothing had been said –
though we’d all heard it had,
and I’d repeated it
so I was sure.

But Khrushchev wouldn’t let it go:
it was yet more proof he couldn’t trust the West,
so what was the point of this?
Then Ike said we’d had no choice
because we can’t trust you –

and so the summit went:
an injured silence interspersed with versions of
it’s all your fault,
until the Soviets said that’s that and quit the room
and Paris, too.

I heard all both sides said out loud –
said half of it myself, in fact –
but cannot say if either asked himself
how his opponent felt, nor how
to help him help make this all right.

Published in a Hedgehog Press Stickleback edition


March 20, 2019

At first, they glanced, and glanced again, before
each knew the way to ask, and to respond;
and as their confidences grew, each saw
the other’s gap of love, and far beyond,

and learned, like breathing out and in, to sense
and meet the other’s needs; and thus their own.
But now, in relearned doubt and coy pretence
a new-found germ of awkwardness has grown.

Back then, it was enough to hint desire
for her (or him), to know, nine times in ten,
that she (or he) would correspond in kind.

Today, as each more rarely feels inspired
the odds are merely vanishing, that when
one sings of love, the other’s lines will rhyme.



Published in a Hedgehog Press Stickleback edition

Fair enough?

March 12, 2019

Inclusive peace processes are all the rage, but is fairness a better metric than inclusiveness? Yes, because it reflects people’s own metric of improvement, and their own agency.

One of the currently in-vogue concepts in peacebuilding is ‘inclusion’. This is not without controversy: there’s a wide spectrum of opinions about how inclusive peace processes ought to be, with some arguing that short-term stability means focusing on an exclusive deal or settlement; while others maintain it’s important to broaden the number of voices and perspectives at the table right from the start – even if that means risking short-term stability. Like many, I fall somewhere in between, and would argue for a pragmatic approach that nevertheless seeks to encourage and promote diverse engagement from as early as possible, without losing sight of the short-term stability goal. This means seeking opportunities for wider inclusion in local, or perhaps thematic parts of the peace process, if it’s too risky to do so in more central parts of the process.

In any case, ‘inclusion’ needs to be considered not only in terms of ‘peace processes’, but also – and equally or even more importantly – in the outcomes. Hence, as long as – say – a constitutional assembly clearly legislates for universal adult suffrage, it may not matter so much if the assembly itself wasn’t fully representative of society. Ideally, of course, one seeks both inclusive processes and outcomes, and – other things being equal – the former will usually make the latter more likely anyway.

But, in messy and risky circumstances, how do we judge when ‘enough’ inclusion has been achieved? Numbers are one way to do this: assessing the proportion of women, men, young people, members of particular castes or ethnicities, people from different religions or regions, or sexual identities in political and administrative roles, in jobs, obtaining justice, attending school and accessing health care, able to vote, and so on.

But numbers can mask underlying truths: for example the number of men and women have for several years been at parity in Rwanda’s parliament; but that doesn’t necessarily indicate that either wield a great deal of power in the political scheme of things there. And reports from Nepal are that despite places being reserved for women, including low caste women, in national government and local village councils, these tend to be determined by male party leaders who allocate them to women of their choice.

The more I consider questions of inclusion, the more often I find myself coming back to the deeper, more important question of fairness. Although it’s not an absolute concept and therefore may be harder to measure than numerical inclusion, it seems to me that it’s the right chalk to use, on this issue. I can think of at least four reasons for that.

First, fairness is a core issue in peace and conflict. While equality may be the holy grail of peacebuilding, I think fairness matters more. Societies less susceptible to fight are those in which access to livelihoods, justice, services, opportunities for advancement, and political voice is fairly available across different segments of society. And by the same token, it’s notions of unfairness which all too often drive people to undermine stability and take up arms. Surely, as a new status quo evolves in Syria, and the war comes to an end, most Syrians will judge the outcome not only by the degree of security it entails, but by how fair their own situation is, and whether they had a fair role in defining it?

Second, while inclusion is an abstract notion emerging from academia and top-down agendas, fairness is something that everyone understands, and it’s commonly one of the criteria we all use to judge the situation we find ourselves in – whether in relation to a seat on the bus, access to housing, water or farmland, or a myriad of other goods. Every child grows up with a sense of what’s fair and unfair. It’s a familiar metric.

Third, fairness is – almost by definition – a comparative concept, rather than a binary one. Most people, I would contend, see fairness as something they have ‘enough’ or ‘not enough’ of, in relation to the issue at hand. This means that one can engage in a discussion about making things ‘fairer’, and thus reducing friction and restoring stability. This means it is eminently suitable for finding compromise: if I am angry at not having enough access to river water to irrigate my farm, it is possible to seek a solution in which I have a bit more water – or find some other way of improving my livelihood, to make my situation fairer, vis-à-vis that of others.

Fourth, fairness is unpatronizing. It’s harder to treat people as objects through the fairness lens, than through the inclusion lens. Inclusion is a passive idea: people can be included, whereas fairness is something they can achieve themselves. Fairness not only meets grievance holders on their own terms, but it also ensures that any conversation about their situation is meaningfully political. Why? Because any discussion of fairness requires a discussion of the resources available, and the trade-offs required if any adjustment is to be made to give one group or another, a fairer crack of the whip. Making sure the conversation is explicitly political in this way reflects the agency of all concerned.

An obvious problem with this approach is the slipperiness and subjectivity of fairness. But that too is an advantage, really, as it means it’s essential to engage with the stakeholders concerned – those who might gain, and those who might lose out, in any proposed change of circumstances – to understand how fair they think it is.

The unhidden thread

March 10, 2019

Grey sunlight glances off wet tarmac, boats
and barges surf and plough the wind and tide.

Planes fly above the cloud; from suburb, coast
and weald, the trains and buses flow in lines,

converge, and spill their riders who divide
and follow bridges, belts and stairways spread

about the city, movements synchronised –
all held in balance by a hidden thread.

I shiver from the beauty of this web,
and cower to foresense its fragile silk cut through –

in every instant see the river surge
with the pace and power of an untamed thoroughbred,

and render towers, gates and gold – and you –
grey-sunlit marshland overflown by birds.


Published in Earlyworks 2018 Anthology


February 22, 2019
What if in fact Potemkin built real towns,
but sailed his empress Catherine instead
past those facades for which he's more renowned,
erected proud along the river’s edge,
and wooed her thus not as befits a queen
but any girl he wanted to impress
with picnics where the Dnieper laps pristine
flood meadows with intent and tenderness,
and beached their boat beneath cascading willows,
served her champagne, caviar and dates,
and lay, caressed by wavelets in the shallows
with her, far removed from cares of state?
For any mighty fool can relocate
a bunch of scurvy settlers from the east –
it takes a rarer talent to create
the perfect backdrop for a royal tryst.
The beauty of Potemkin villages
is you can visit when – with whom – you wish,
and no one’s lurking in the shadows as
a prince and empress steal a real kiss.

First published in This Quieter Shore, a Stickleback micro-collection, 2018


January 13, 2019
Rice crowded terraced heights above
in vivid stripes
as though the world had not
for a long moment paused
while a harsh and violent wind seared the slopes,
and the city they’d for years
led down towards
had not
in that long moment gone

though when you drop a bomb
however powerful
some features randomly remain intact
or recognisable, at least

a chimney stack
a temple arch, a river course, a grid
of curiously uncluttered streets
a simple shed
a jagged obelisk of stones –
the relic corner of a vanished home
in a vanished neighbourhood

I heard you say
your sister’s blood would not stop flowing in
the hot summer sun;
she could not swallow
to replace the blood she lost she was
a child – and so
were you –

it feels like yesterday.

Published in Earlyworks 2018 Anthology