Imogen Forster

Remembering Private John Newton
Great Uncle Jack, gambler, joker, tease,
lived under the brown Crags’ bristling edge,
behind the city’s green and lion-headed hill.
A sulky visitor, I’m dragged along
Rankeillor or Montaiggie Street
to 44 St Leonard’s, a cramped tenement,
a hot embarrassment to a fastidious child.
The smell of damp stone on the dark stair,
dull brass and the worn steps up to the door.

A pioneer of sorts, Jack was sent to France,
train from Waverley, then the Dover boat, we think.
There was a postcard, written at Étaples:
“I am well. I hope you are being good girls
and saying your prayers.”

And a telegram, a name they read as Passion Dale.
Head-wounded, bumped back to Scotland, he stayed
in rotation with his sisters, Mary, Nellie, Grace.
Refused to wear their knitted things, but like
a land-bound sailor took his kist
along with him, filled with woollen socks,
heels turned, a thing I never learned to do.

He sat by the fire, had fits, fell in, got burned,
roamed the town all day, carried an old man’s
oilcloth bag of coins. Held up the traffic
with an imperious hand. At Christmas time
he gave us each a silver crown, heavy, bright,
the old Queen’s head still sharp and clean.

I remember his pink cheeks and white baby-hair,
heard about his silver plate, afraid of seeing it
lying hard under his sewn-up scalp.
But not so much as a scar. His bare white feet,
his soft hand on the phone, placing his small bets.

Did he, too, maim, or kill? Bayonet a boy whose
name he didn’t know, stick him on the wire?
It’s hard to think our Uncle Jack did that.
Passing there last year, I found
the houses all pulled down, replaced, and tried
to find some relic of an unprotesting life,
to read again with proper grown-up care
the story in that innocent blue gaze.
the story in that innocent blue gaze.

Copyright © Imogen Forster 2014

I am a translator, mainly of art history and French fiction. I also work in Italian, Spanish and Catalan. Details of my work can be found at I publish poems on-line, and tweet a lot of haiku.


About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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