The songstress clears her husky throat and dons
her lioness outfit. Pride of the pride
she was, back in the day, she muses
and begins her song.
The yarn commences
in the 70s, when charabancs would ply
the bumpy B-roads of West England, chock full
of OAPs. The coach party blasts westwards down
the recently installed M4; does Avebury; stops
off in Bath; hurtles through nondescript market towns,
shaking the tower of the County Hall
and war memorial; barrels through Cheddar Gorge
and parks off for a stroll around the flowery groves
of Heaven’s Gate, the grass strewn with the corpses
of the multicolored rhododendron blossom,
turning to sepia in their various states of sweet
decay. The bus speeds past the Pheasant and the Hart,
the Cat and Fiddle, and The Lamb and Flag–the Plough–
and turns off up into the car park of the White
Horse Inn; a squad car, siren blaring, rushing off
in the opposite direction after a bank-
robber, the flat-capped cops flicking their cigarette
ash nonchalantly out the rolled-down windows,
as pollen-laden early summer air blows through.
The Chancellor strides in, decked out in all the full
regalia of a coachman; smiles, picks up the mike,
and gazes into the songstress’s pale eyes
and moon-shaped face; their voices melting together
in mellifluous duet.
The coach has crisscrossed
Salisbury Plain, sweeping past standing stones, and mud
and Chieftan tanks, and tall cathedral spire, to stop
off at the pub for bladders to be relieved
and ploughman’s lunch washed down with pints of Watney’s ale,
as driver and his mate sit on the barrels out back,
nursing a crafty half between puffs on their Silk Cut
fags and dirty jokes. One more round for the road.
The theme-park lioness enjoys a leisurely
post-prandial yawn, wondering why aristos have such
a fondness for big cats and put them on their flags
and monuments, their forecourts and front-door knockers,
and even on the bonnets of their fancy cars.
‘Think I’ll nip out and grab myself some lunch,’ she thinks,
and bounds over the fence past docile park-keepers
to trot off down the local watering hole, puffed up
with pride for the great nation she is emblem of.
Fled from her stately homely faux safari-park,
the lioness feels curiously unhinged, missing
the chimps clambering over the Ford Cortina
estates, sun roofs and squeaking windscreen wipers
of the caravan of family cars that daily
wends its way through her familiar neck of the woods.
The routine ration of food furnished by wary
zoo staff is no more. No more hearing the roaring
of the kingly male-cats with their comely manes,
she suffers the strangeness and the isolation
of the open road; mourns her captivity
and moodily stretches her jaws. Lost & unleashed
she prowls resentfully among the vehicles,
clawing at high-walled coaches, tipping a moped
over with a terrible clatter, hauling
the odd packed lunch out through the soft top of a sports car.
Dissatisfied with this meager repast, the lioness
stalks round the backyard of the pub. The drivers
freeze in fright. Lioness roars, mauls the blue oily
uniform of the one who used to be a boxer,
before she’s scared off by a fire-extinguisher-
wielding landlord and his boozy mates and scarpers
off to cower shudderingly under the bins and skips.
The old dears doze off after downing roly-poly
pudding, soothed by the silky syrup and a couple
of tranks. ‘Sweetness from strength’ the slogan on the can
proclaims, a sentiment that is amplified each day
by plummy voices on the radio and the thump
of guns saluting monarchy and crushing
dissent at home and overseas. The pride of Empire
rears its mighty mane and lords it proudly over
the sorry remnants of its onetime realm.
The souls of Hazlett, Fox and Lamb look down
upon the scene and sigh, brandishing quills, scalpels,
and order papers to ward off the beast, now
startled by the panda cars, lights blazing, parked
on the zebra crossing where to a halt it screeched.
The vets and carnival barkers are after her
with giant nets to coax her back into her cage.
Unfanged the lioness lets out one last bored yawn.
This whole damned bloody country, she thinks, has gone
right down the drain and to the dogs, is rotten
to the core, and now is hoisted up, unsteady
and elderly, solely upon a set of shaky
staddlestones set in a groaning bog fought over
by parasites and strays. This mighty house she cowers
under in couchant attitude abased amidst
a bed of fleur de lys is tumbledown and fit
only for condemnation and the wrecking
ball, she thinks; as from somewhere inside the pub
she hears plucked from a harp a melancholy air.
The songstress and the chancellor bow and are wheeled
out back into the big wide world to claps and cheers
and the odd long-stemmed rose strewn in their path.
The whole hospital staff joins in the sing-along
before they leave the premises in separate blacked-out cars.
Shaken a little by the business with the lioness,
the tottering senior citizens are gently placed back
on the coach by their obliging drivers, talking
of how they’ll still be telling the story of this outing
to their little ones many a year from now. The coach
revs up, pulls out, and speeds off down the motorway
and all eventually is well.