Beginning in A City, 1948 – James Berry

Beginning in a City, 1948

Stirred by restlessness, pushed by history,

I found myself in the centre of Empire.

Those first few hours, with those packed impressions

I never looked at in all these years.

I knew no room. I knew no Londoner.

I searched without knowing.

I dropped off my grip at the ‘left luggage’.

A smart policeman told me a house to try.

In dim-lit streets, war-tired people moved slowly

like dark-coated bears in a snowy region.

I in my Caribbean gear

was a half-finished shack in the cold winds.

In November, the town was a frosty field.

I walked fantastic stone streets in a dream.

A man on duty took my ten-shilling note

for a bed for four nights.

Inflated with happiness I followed him.

I was left in a close-walled room,

left with a dying shadeless bulb,

a pillowless bed and a smelly army blanket –

all the comfort I had paid for.

Curtainless in morning light, I crawled out of bed

onto wooden legs and stiff-armed body,

with a frosty-board face that I patted

with icy water at the lavatory tap.

Then I came to fellow-inmates in a crowded room.

A rage of combined smells attacked me,

clogging my nostrils –

and new charges of other smells merely

increased the stench. I was alone.

I alone was nauseated and choked in deadly air.

One-legged people stood around a wall of hot plates

prodding sizzled bacon and kippers.

Sore-legged and bandaged people poured tea.

Weather-cracked faces, hairy and hairless, were chewing.

No woman smiled. No man chuckled.

Words pressed through gums and gaps of rusty teeth.

Grimy bundles and bags were pets

beside grimy bulges of people, bowed, and in little clusters.

Though ever so gullible I knew – this was a dosshouse.

I collected back seven shillings and sixpence.

I left the place and its smells, their taste still with me

and again instinct directed me.

I walked without map, without knowledge

from Victoria to Brixton. On Coldharbour Lane

I saw a queue of men – some black –

and stopped. I stood by one man in the queue.

‘Wha happenin brodda? Wha happenin here?’

Looking at me he said ‘You mus be a jus-come?

You did hear about Labour Exchange?’ ‘Yes – I hear.’

‘Well, you at it! But, you need a place whey you live.’

He pointed. ‘Go over dere and get a room.’

So, I had begun – begun in London.

James Berry

from A Story I Am In: Selected Poems (2011
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