The Sailors of Ulm is a book about flying and falling, sailing and drowning. Andy Croft puts out to sea with a faithful crew of ignoble comrades, including Paul Robeson, John Berger, Chris Hani, Lord Byron, Martín Espada, Squire Allworthy, Alexei Leonov, Harry Patch and Brian Clough. But the wind has turned, the ship of Progress is heading towards the rocks and the rats are cheering on the quayside. It’s a collection of fables and tall tales – about spiders ands flies, sheep and goats, frogs and mice, a cockroach, a bear, a blue cat and some blooming flowers. Above all, it’s a book about writing and reading, art and society and the gnawing criticism of the mice. A user’s manual for swimming against the tide.
Extract The Sailors of Ulm for Tim Put out to sea, my broken comrades, Unfurl the torn and tattered hearts Tattooed upon our fading colours, For though the seas have all run dry And our boats burned, and all our charts Forgot, we’ll get there by and by. Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades, The tide has turned, all hands on deck, Let all who sail this lunar ocean Recall the faithful crew who drowned Inside the bleached whale of our wreck When, rudderless, we run aground. Don’t rock the boat, ignoble comrades, Or we might end up in the drink. Our course is set. On the horizon The sun is setting. On the quay The rats are cheering as we sink Beneath the sands. We’re all at sea. A Blessed Plot ‘In the great bee crisis, it is impossible not to see the metaphor.’ Boris Johnson As usual the flowers were complaining About their blooming lot – In Winter it was always raining, The Summers were too hot, The hedge too high; The shrubbery and rose-beds needed weeding, The edges cutting back, The mossy lawn required reseeding, The black-flies were too black, The soil too dry. But nothing bugged these flowers like the spectre Of swarms of honey-bees Who helped themselves to English nectar And never once said please. ‘Those striped marauders!’ ‘It’s time we told the bees that we don’t need ’em!’ And so they took a poll And talked about the blossoming of freedom Once they’d won back control Of their own borders. Next morning when the honey-bees clocked on The flowers hid their faces, Until the busy bees had gone To find more friendly places Than this sad grot. Which now is left a bolted, blighted spot Of rust and smut and weed, A wilderness of inky blot, A garden gone to seed And left to rot. Moral The earth’s the fruit of all our labours While Eve still spins and Adam delves, And those who do not like their neighbours Must learn to go and fuck themselves. A Willimantic Fable for Jon, Denise, Miles and Kit after Dick Wilbur There’s none who heard that cry of midnight dread And infinite dismay Could doubt that it was sent to wake the dead On Judgement Day. The warm New England air Seemed swollen by a strange inhuman wail, The feral song of things unknown, out there, Beyond the pale. And as we listened to the murderous drumming Of savage, frenzied revels, We knew it was an Indian army coming. Or else the Devil’s. In every horrid groan We saw our children dead, our farms in flames, In every cry of bullet, blood and bone We heard our names. Some fell upon the Mercy of the Lord To lead us through the night, While others, armed with pitchfork, gun and sword, Prepared to fight. The dogs began to bark, Our army readied for the first attack, The bravest started shooting in the dark. But none fired back. We watched all night. But when the stars were fled And day lit up the roads, We saw no foreign army, but instead A host of toads. The alien sound of slaughter Of savage judgement from the world beyond, Was just some bullfrogs singing by the water In Windham pond. Moral Of all the leaping terrors that draw near When we are in our beds The greatest are the fears we hear Inside our heads. The splendid heroes of the night Are fools in day’s disgrace, And our own fears the only fight We need to face. The Sheep and the Goats ‘So why refuse a vote to wolves of good repute?’ Ivan Krylov Behold – a happy, sylvan scene Of meadows wild and tall, Of thistles sharp and nettles green; A well-fenced park With grass enough for all; Where goats and sheep could sleep at night Far from the horrid tale Of burning eyes and teeth that bite In forests dark, Out there beyond the pale. Though there was field enough to share, The fold was fouled, alas, By ruminants who filled the air With woolly bleating About who owned the grass. Each day the rivalry increased Between the sheep and goats, Who, thinking they were being fleeced, Instead of eating Were at each other’s throats. But then one night when all were sleeping Behind the high-walled dyke, A hungry silhouette came creeping With dreams of hay For sheep and goats alike; It offered them both bigger shares Of Nature’s green estate, And promised them it would be theirs If only they Would open up the gate. Next day the creatures had no doubt About what they should do: The monsters they had dreamed about Could use those claws To make their dreams come true; They’d lick their rivals into shape, The other Bovid lot Would not be able to escape Those ripping jaws. And what big teeth they’ve got! Their choices made, the Caprine kin Had barely cast their votes Before the wolves came grinning in And with a leap Had seized them by their throats. When Fascism is at the door With promises of grass, It doesn’t matter whether you’re A goat or sheep – Don’t let the bastards pass. The Cosmonauts of Ulm ‘Der Mensch ist kein Vogel’ Brecht When the Bishop told the waiting crowds That the tailor was quite dead, The crowd began to sing and dance with mirth; ‘We knew he’d never fly,’ they said, ‘His head was in the clouds, And now his pride has brought him down to earth.’ They left the tailor where he lay Upon the broken stones, So nobody would try to fly again; His broken wings and broken bones Reminders to obey The heavy laws of gravity and men. And so the world goes spinning by, And upstart stars still fall, Beneath our heavy boots the planet clings; And only bird-brains still recall How we once tried to fly Around the broken earth on gorgeous wings.
‘scalpel-sharp satire. Old school leftist, taker-on of social and political hypocrisy, and no stranger to controversy in much the same way that Oliver Reed was no stranger to the odd pint or two, it’s safe to say that Andy Croft is a unique talent in contemporary British poetry.’
Neil Fulwood, London Grip