ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialism, Winter 1961


Keith Barnes

Catterick 1954


From International Socialism (1st series), No. 7, Winter 1961, p. 22.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Keith Barnes was born in Dagenham, November 1934. Lived there and in Walthamstow for most of the war and went to about eight schools. Started to write music at the age of 12, eventually studying composition at the Royal Academy. Tried to write poetry during National Service but gave it up on release. Ideas of musical career quashed and has since worked in libraries, music publishing and films. Began writing poetry again in May 1960 and has been published by The Observer, Time and Tide, The Times Literary Supplement and Tribune. Married, with one child. Pacifist, vegetarian and supporter of CND. He has a book of poems in preparation.

It was twenty-past three and raining when we arrived,
very young, very green and far from home.
At 15.20 hours the waiting MPs
used their new legal power to bully us
and insult us into trucks. “It will be a change,”
we thought, “It has to be; let’s get it done.”

Down and on past the stone walls, fields, high hills,
the lorry-load swayed by the first low straggling billets,
raw red-brick barrack rooms, row on row,
starkly built and too plainly showing
the absence of feminine hands;
then a bare grey square, the hideous Sandhurst Block
and a minimum of shops, dull as a Regular’s mind.
The rain fell down on this world for men; bleak
in the eyes, bleak in the mind, barren in the soul.

The hut they put us in was made of wood,
dry wood, condemned in 1935
and named after some battle we had lost
in the First World War. The wind whipped and knived
through gaps in the rotten walls. I had lost,
we all had lost, what freedom we had known.

We were made to stand for Lance-Corporal God
whenever he chose to stride in through the door.
God shouted and raved, ordered us to make
bed-packs, and when they weren’t quite right
He dashed them to the dust-filled floor.
This cardboard man, this phallus with a stripe
whose mind, if it existed at all,
was centred in his testicle
ironically, by nature of his trade,
was quite without the natural man’s seed,
for, as is known, soldiers are to kill and not to breed.

One lad, I saw, two beds away from me
had slumped down when the bully left and shown
the fright in his pallid face, his tears brimmed
just as mine were welling up. He was frail,
I saw he had known misery before.
“Lights out!” The switch was thrown and friendly night
came as our comfort, sleep was never so
gentle. Let not tomorrow dawn, make sleep
obliterate this foul nightmare.

‘Shutters and doors, all closed’; on us the doors are closed.

Dawn. A cocksure corporal came singing –
“There is a body in the bog (in the bog),
the body of some weak nig-nog (weak nig-nog)
and ’e is ’anging by the cistern chain,
’e won’t breave froo ’is neck again (neck again).”


The bed next-door-but-one was lying empty
land of hope and glory mother of the free.
‘Men, gaps for filling:
losses who might have fought
longer; but no one bothers.’
‘“It does them good to get away
from their mothers’ apron strings,”
said Lady Amanda Laye
at a women’s meeting here today.’
And ’e won’t breave froo ’is neck again (neck again).
They charged him with suicide, then cut the chain.

‘There’s my sweetheart on the hill, the red rose and the white;
the red rose drops its petals, but the white rose is my sweetheart.’

So this was comradeship. The same sinking boat.
‘None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.’

When we were ‘fit to be seen outside’
they let us go by bus for a ride
into nearby Richmond. Up past the squalid
married quarters I went, a quid
in my pocket to last me the rest of the week.
To be out, even a mile; to sneak
away, see real shops, real people speaking
decently to each other, almost unconscious of rank.

When we marched I watched the flight of birds,
I breathed the sun, I felt the shape of trees.
I fell in love with them anew. Heard
the many murmurings in the breeze
with sharpened sense. I had to love something
quickly and firmly too, or numb my heart.

While others went up their weekend tarts
in Richmond hotels, I went up Swaledale
walking, stopping, staring in stony becks.

‘How happy are the wild birds,
they can go where they will,
to the sea, to the mountain,
and come home without rebuke.’

His pallid head (they cut the chain) bent like a broken flower.
The water twirled and scurried through the bed of stones.

And did they listen, Owen? Did they hear?
‘My subject is War, and the pity of war.
The poetry is in the pity ............
All a poet can do today is warn.’

Top of page

ISJ Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 13 June 2018