Posts Tagged ‘John Gillespie Magee’

Lancaster bomber cockpit

Bomber Command crews suffered an extremely high casualty rate: 55,573 killed out of 125,000 aircrew (a 44.4% death rate), a further 8,403 were wounded in action and 9,838 became prisoners of war.


When they buried Uncle Ken

it took six strong men

to get him into Chapel again.

And I was one of them.

Loitering outside Swansea Crematorium in the drizzle,

old enough to smoke a Rothmans now and not get yelled at,

I dreamed old tales of a Pathfinder bomber pilot.

Bringing his plane home from Essen, staffed by bodies,

co-pilot’s head cradled in his lap, dead.

Flying dead.

Dead with a round gone in his groin and

out his shoulder, but the bucking stick and clouds of flak

meant Ken didn’t realise

till he got the crate down somehow at Warboys

and bouncing cross the grass he spoke to him

“Jesus, home again, that was close, buttie!”

and got no reply.

I was six when I’d told him I wanted to be Prime Minister.

From then, till the day he died, he used to ring up.

“Is that the PM’s office?” All haughty like.

Like a Whitehall nob in a wing collar,

not a South Wales fish merchant

in brown boots greasy with herring guts.

Even when I had forgotten the joke, he never did.

He used to send me and Mam boxes of fish.

We’d de-ice the windows

and take the Triumph Herald, complaining and wheezing,

to Christchurch station and collect them on Christmas Eve,

when they rang late in the chilled afternoon, as they always did,

to tell us the train had pulled in with the guard’s van

smelling of smoked cod and ling and plaice and even, once,

a whole salmon. Ice dripping from fire-wood slats and

fresh fish wrapped in newsprint.

Taking the strain of the box on my shoulders

I muttered “Come on, you old bugger”, under my breath

as we hoisted him out of the hearse,

weighty with years of Felinfoel Bitter Ale around his belly,

his face gone all jowly and heavy.

Memories gently pressed on me like a twig bumping a river bank.

Him leaning on my shoulder, juniper-laden gin breath,

waving gaily at the serried, hill-climbing ranks of slate-rooved glistening

gob-windowed wet granite and flint houses like a passing King,

shouting fuck off noises at his ex down the phone,

singing hymns to the stars with tears in his eyes,

while the tabby cats skulked away into back alleys and under the garden sheds.

When we reached the steps to go in,

I thought I would stumble.

The other men were all bigger than me.

Rugby broad and ruddy faced and tall as pit head joists.

So the coffin weighed down on me, digging into the flesh

under my cheap schoolboy suit.

Just as I thought I must drop him

splintered teak on marbled stairs

and disgrace the family

I felt a hand under my arm,

and a familiar slurred voice said with a smile

“Come on, Prime Minister. You’ll make it.”’

“I thought we were carrying you,” I said to myself,

through gritted and grateful teeth.

“As in life, so in death, eh?” he laughed

in an airy, young man’s voice.

And I swear it, to this day.

It was him.

No question.

High in the sunlit silence: hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew –

And, while the silent lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., killed 1941

Anyone interested in checking out my volume  of Poetry – 71 Poems and 1 Story – can find it here: