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

Rock, Bird, Butterfly and Old Friends are launched

Thanks to Westminster Library for a lovely launch, to Hercules Editions, and to Richard Scott and Jenny Wong for reading with me. The books are now available on the Hercules website


From Chinoiserie to Fu Manchu

Ahead of the new Hercules Edition books, I chatted to Christopher Harding at the Telegraph about my Chinese ancestry and imagining China. You can read the article here

New books forthcoming with Hercules Editions

Happy to share the covers of new books due in May with Hercules Editions, both on the historical entanglements of Britain and China. More details here.

A few dates over summer…

The Kids is going on a tour, mostly of the north of England! And the Midlands. And London of course.

Here’s a photo of the bridge the train crosses over the Tyne…though really, it’s the view from the train on the bridge that I love.

And some dates. Hope to see you somewhere, sometime…

Wed 4th May – Writing on the Wall Festival, Liverpool

Sat 6th May – Newcastle Poetry Festival, Newcastle

Sat 14th May — Poets and Players, Manchester

Thurs 19th May – WORD, Leicester

Sun 22nd May – Museum of London Docklands

Wed 22nd June – China Exchange, Soho

Fri 24th June – Tunbridge Wells Festival

Sat 25th June – Writers Mosaic, Bradford

Sat 2nd July – Marxism Festival, London

Sun 17th July – Skylines Festival, Coventry

A little trip to Waterstones, Tottenham Court Road, to sign some books

Radio 4 Extra – Long Time No See (again)

So lovely that Radio 4 are re-playing Long Time No See this week  – Book of the Week back in 2016, read by me and Colin Salmon


A few words from me on teaching through a pandemic

It wasn’t the nightmare we thought it would be, but it wasn’t great either! 

BBC Radio 3 The Verb – Adversaries! And a new poem…

I enjoyed talking ‘Adversaries’ in literature with Marlon James, Jo Moshenka and Jane Casey, and lovely host, Ian MacMillan on The Verb this week. There’s a new sonnet on this theme, towards the end


Ahead of Stanza Poetry Festival, an interview with Beth McDonough from DURA