Safe as Houses

Another collaboration with the wood engraver Chris Daunt, this time from the Belle Grove Press, ‘Safe as Houses’ presents two sets of poems at first glance very different, which combine to establish a subtle and distinctly political view. The first, ‘My Father’s Phrases’, contemplates the idioms of a wartime generation which was communal and powerless, looking on the bright side and knowing the dark, shaken but trying not to show it, offering security in an unstable world they termed ‘as safe as houses’. The second set of poems ‘The Revolution of M Chardin’ meditates on the images of his art, seen by his contemporaries as a ‘lower’ form, still life, with common everyday objects for its subject, and reveals a politics which celebrates ‘everything that has no stare/or gaze/or threat in it/and looks straight back’.

‘Safe as houses’

safe as houses

we were not


as the overhead Metro

of Dornier and Heinkel

made its nightly rumble

down the jungle

we all heard

though I was little enough

to be kept in the doll’s pram

all night through

what use

the knowledge

the danger

– told later –

was all meant for others

twenty miles east

in the Docks and tenements

of London


as houses’

ours cracked

like some minor Frankenstein

some monster out of film

some worry lines

scoring the cheeks of it

from all those guns

‘safe as houses’

as my father

would say

questioned after doubt

a promise for the future

the long term forecast

always there

as he was not

when he fell

in the kitchen

– or so I guessed –

receiving news

in the telegram

onto my mat


from his funeral

my mother

still with us

alone with the cat

who’d attacked her

once he was gone

still giving welcome

still reassuring


‘safe as houses’

at a loss in her flat


I must forget everything I have seen so far and even the manner in which subjects are treated by others.

(Chardin 1730)

‘A Copper Water Urn’

as if enthroned

but with no need

for pomp

a copper water urn

almost human

with its slightly bulky


its rings for ears

its shoulders

its metal turban


as a hat

no features

but some lineaments

of light

of shadow


to give it

greater weight

instead of donors

in attendance

on one knee and small

a jug

its lid

a ladle leant against a wall

instead of altar

a stool for stand

and tin

to catch

each drop

and we take in

the nature

of this place

not godless

but with no need

of saint

not faceless

but with no need

for talk


in metal


and pot


by the moulding fall

of light

there is no need

to touch

what we can almost


as far

as that is possible

through sight

another time

a maid will come

and carry water

another time

the jug

will find its weight


on a woman’s


poured mid air

another time

the urn

will almost fill

the scullery

it dominates



in a country way


but here


we can stand back

or come up close

close as we like

join in


is taking place

The Copper Drinking Fountain

‘A Copper Water Urn’ Chardin 1734

Recording: from Safe as Houses