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Spectator competition: unmask a well-known figure of the 20th century who is also a secret poet (plus elegies for postmen and headsmen)

12 July 2014

9:30 AM

12 July 2014

9:30 AM

Estate agents, travel agents, publishers, record company executives; all have seen their livelihoods put in jeopardy by a brave new digital world. So it seemed fitting to invite competitors to compose an elegy for an endangered profession. You lamented the dwindling role of the milkman and the postman, and mourned the disappearance of the old-style pub landlord: ‘The last true pub landlords would much rather die/
Than stick on the telly for soccer on Sky,/ For they know the atmosphere’s stronger by far/ In a dank, convalescent-home type of a bar.’ (Adrian Fry)

I admired Paul Evans’s entry but wasn’t convinced that being an England football fan qualifies as a profession. Here’s his final stanza: ‘The former fan now fosters new ambitions/ To link his love of England, and of beer,/ So he’s supporting Nigel’s ‘politicians’/ In what may be another doomed career!’ There were sparkling performances, too, from Barbara Smoker and Bill Greenwell. The winners, printed below, pocket £30 each. G.M. Davis takes £35.

G.M. Davis
What made the tested proofer,
The literal-detector,
Less common than a loofah?
Who rubbed out the corector?

Who were the mad deleters?
Who wealded the erasers?
Who fried the subbing praetors
And gave their jobs to lasers?

I think were I a riter
Id be a little bitter
To have a laser blight a
Peace of mine like litter.

Bring back the galley-reader,
The trained-up text-emender,
The keen-eyed typo-weeder,
The pedant in his splendour.

Basil Ransome-Davies
The shades of night are falling for the squaddie
        with the gun,
The kind who formed the Thin Red Line or
        battled with the Hun,
Who faced the Minenwerfer and the high
        explosive bomb
And left his bloody entrails on the mudfields of
        the Somme.

The ranker fought the enemy from Khartoum to
The kudos was the generals’; the sacrifice was
Then when his mouth was dry with dust, back
        home or in the rear,
He faced the surly taverner who wouldn’t serve
        him beer.

What future does he face now, as his role is paid
        off cheap —
A jail of debt and loneliness, a horror-broken
        sleep? —
While air-conditioned men watch screens, play
        keyboards with clean hands
And launch their bloodless death machines to
        kill in distant lands.

The state that teaches men to kill has little left
        to give
When troops stand down and no one asks who
        dies if England live.
Smart algorithms make the globe a virtual
        combat zone;
It’s still ‘that sickened earth of old’: no law
        except the Drone.

Brian Allgar
A Headsman used to be a fine profession
Before those namby-pambies wrecked the trade.
The customer would make a last confession,
Then, thwack! Another head to be displayed.
A single stroke would bonce from body sunder;
I never had a client who complained.
But where did all those pikestaffs go, I wonder?
Those baskets, often royally bestained?
Although decapitation’s been abolished,
And I’m considered obsolete, retired,
I keep my chopping axes oiled and polished;
You never know when they may be required.

Today, good news at last! I’m off to pack —
I’ve heard that there’s an opening in Iraq.

D.A. Prince
A postman shapes the pattern of each day,
His steps define our frail community;
He brings the real, the tactile, and the play
Of published print and hand-writ ink, to me.

The last link in the paper chain, the means
By which these postcards, letters grace our floor,
along with books and newsy magazines;
the whole wide world delivered through the

The virtual unseen world fades on a whim.
The postman takes real weather in his stride.
He tracks the deepest winter snows; for him
No storm nor hail can leave him terrified.

A postman’s load grows lighter year by year,
The work replaced by stuff prefixed with e-.
His world is shrinking, fast; his end is near.
Such passing is a sadder day for me.

Frank McDonald
The Sunday bells appeal for folk to come
And spend their morning listening to Good
But few arrive; the Lord has long been dumb.
The priest performs his task to empty pews.
As weary weeks become a weary year
And saving souls for God is one long Lent
He finds a wisp of faith in wine, or beer,
And statues watch his sad predicament.
He has no words to make the hearts of youth
Opt for a life of penitence and prayer
For he has seen the ugliness of truth
And daily wears the vestments of despair.
What fool would gladly enter this profession
And conjure grace from words devoid of sense?
No miracle can change the priest’s impression
That everything he stands for is pretence.

Your next challenge is to imagine that a well-known figure from 20th-century history (alive or dead but please specify) was/is a secret poet and to submit a recently discovered example of their versifying. Please email entries of up to 16 lines to by midday on 23 July.

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