My Visit to St Petersburg
Gentlemen – oh and ladies, please forgive me!
I have been too many years in the army.
But all that’s in the past now. Here I am
With a gathering of my friends in this good old house. We are cosy, are we not? Let it roar outside,
Our coals and candles, sofas, drinks replenished
Are like a magic cave where all that lacks
Is tales to tell, to startle, tales to match
The flickering shadows. My mind is full,
My memories are sharp and clear, I tell it
As it was. Judge if you will, listen you must.
Truth gives a tongue the strength of ten.
I begin! One tingling day in December
I was skelping along towards St Petersburg
On a one-horse sledge, as they do in that country, When a large lean cold and hungry wolf
Slunk out of the forest behind me and ran
Panting to overtake us. This was not good!
I pressed myself flat on the sledge until whoosh – The wolf leapt over me and sank its jaws
Into my horse’s hindquarters. Sorry, horse!
But that is what saved me. Now hear more.
The famished wolf went crazy, burrowing, Munching, slurping deep into the horse
Till only its rump was showing. I rose up,
Quickly gave it the mother of all whacks
With the butt-end of my whip; the horse
Was now pure wolf, the carcass fell to the ground; The wolf was in its harness, galloped forward Slavering and howling till we reached St Petersburg. The crowds that came out! You’ve no idea.
They clapped, hooted, whistled, rocked and laughed. Great entrance to a city, don’t you think?
All Is Not As It Seems
Russia is so vast, it is unbelievable.
I got lost there once, in winter it was too.
The night was dead dark, not a light to be seen Though I thought a village was near. Light came Only from the snow, which was pure, thick, firm. It was like a freshly sheeted bed
Ready to tempt me; I was tired; I yielded
To temptation, tied my horse to a pointed stump, Lay down, well wrapped, and quickly fell asleep.
It was morning when I woke, but where was I?
Tombstones! I was lying snug between two tombstones!
It was a churchyard, and there was the church,
And beyond that the village, a dog barking,
A few early feet stirring. Was it a spell,
Had a band of sly Slav demons carried me off?
Where was the snow? Where was my faithful horse?
I heard a neighing, where? where?, looked up,
There it was, hanging by its bridle from the steeple.
The snow, ninety feet deep, had thawed overnight,
Let me down softly, inch by inch, still sleeping.
But the tree-stump I had tethered my horse to
Was the high weathervane where he whinnied and whinnied, Kicked at the air and waited for me to act.
What a country! What weather! Not canny!
But there is nothing uncanny about me.
I took my pistol, shot the bridle in half,
Caught my horse as he clattered to the ground.
Oh, was there not some nuzzling of my neck!
Did he not push himself against me like a colt!
No longer suspended between earth and heaven
He could enjoy the world again.
Dear friends, That world is a strange place. It’s where Everything solid melts into air
And then unmelts again. Motto: beware!
Travelling in the wintry wastes of Europe
I found myself rattling along in a post-chaise
On a rutted road so ditched and hedged and narrow Two carriages could never keep abreast.
One was bouncing towards me: what to do?
“Your horn! Give a warning!” I shouted to the postilion. Well, the postilion was a sturdy lad,
Blew and blew until his lips were sore,
But nothing came out, the sounds frozen stiff
In that icy Polish air. Only one thing for it:
Necessity set my blood pumping:
I got out, hoisted the carriage on my head,
Jumped the nine-foot hedge into a field,
Jumped back on to the road beyond the carriage That was baulked of a crash. Ha ha, I thought,
All I need now is my horses; said and done;
One round my neck, one under arm – I got them over By the same means, harnessed them up, drove Laughing (and sweating just a little I admit)
To reach the inn where we could spend the night.
That seems a fairly ordinary tale,
But there is more to come. My postilion Hung up his post-horn on a hook by the fire,
And before you could say Pan Robinson
The music it had stored was thawed out, played Loud and clear, untouched by human mouth,
A lovely merry, medley of sweet song,
‘My love is like a red red rose’, ‘Scots Wha Hae’, ‘Over the hills and far away’. I tell you
There was a tear in my eye. I called for supper, And I blessed the horn that kept its tales intact, Letting them out, like mine, when the time is ripe.
A Good Deed
Some say Munchausen is a swashbuckler,
Too ready with knife and gun, too wild of tongue. Dear friends, it is not for me to defend myself.
I simpy lay my life on the line before you.
It is up to you to decide. So what am I?
I was a captain in the Empress of Russia’s service. I have killed some Turks. At the Siege of Gibraltar I helped the British. I have killed some Spaniards. But these were wars, where ‘Thou shall not kill’ Invites derision. I have killed some animals, Many in sport, many in self-defence.
Is that bad? I think we need a referendum!
But speaking of animals: I give you a story.
I was out hunting one summer day
Deep in the forests of Lithuania
When I saw in the distance two wild pigs Walking in line. I shot at them, but missed,
Or almost missed. The one in front ran off, Seemingly unharmed but letting out a yelp. The other one stood still – extraordinary – Waiting patiently till I came up to her,
An old sow with her head down, silent.
I passed a hand in front of her; she was blind. Her jaws still held a fragment of the tail
Her son had led her with. She stood helpless, Afraid to move, yet not afraid of me,
Smell of man and smoking gun: I think
She sensed I was not now the enemy.
I grasped the piece of tail my shot had left
And led the creature, trotting docile behind me, Back to her den.
Who are the cynics then?
I invented the story to appear in a better light? Did I, would I, could I help the poor beast?
I know the answer. I’m sure you do too.
My Day Among The Cannonballs
My Sojourn in Constantinople
“Anything can happen in Constantinople.”
I am told that is an old Turkish saying.
If so, I recommend it to you.
My veracity is sometimes, what is the word, impugned. Some say, “You have smoked a hookah too many?”
Or “You have been seen talking to dervishes”.
But I have no interest in these speculations.
My business is with facts and here they are.
I was a prisoner of war to the Ottomans
But treated well. I guarded the Sultan’s bees,
Drove them to pasture in the morning, back at night. One evening, my dear friends, I missed a bee. Where was it? Being mauled by two black bears, That’s where! They fought, stark mad for honey.
I knew the Sultan hated to lose a bee.
Every gardener had a silver hatchet:
I flung mine at the bears, but it flew off
On its own Turkish trajectory to the moon,
Up, up, a sickle attaching itself
To the sickle moon’s horn. I want it back!
But how? My friends, there is always a way.
In my pocket I had some seeds of the Turkish-bean Which as everyone knows grows fast and high.
I sowed them; they sprouted; and like British Jack
I climbed my beanstalk up to the moon.
Well, that was that. I found my hatchet,
Prepared to return. But here, if you will allow me,
Is the sort of detail I could not have invented.
My beanstalk had dried, shrivelled in the sun.
I had to plait together a ramshackle rope
From straw I picked up on the moon; it broke;
Five miles above the earth I clung and crashed
In a flurry of pithless fragments; the ground Opened as I fell into it: quite a pit!
By luck, my finger-nails were very long.
I dug myself out like a hard-working mole,
To the amazement of those who stopped to watch.
I was shaken, but pleased. The bears had shambled off. The hatchet was a little scratched, but safe.
And the bee lived to sting another day.
Europe is all wars. Its plains are drenched in blood. Treaties signed, treaties broken, forgotten, Empires bursting from the gun of history, Empires burnt out by the fires of history –
Should we worry, sitting here at peace?
Of course not. Yes we should. I don’t know.
I know I have fought, have had allegiances,
But I am left with reminiscences,
Which are my best, least understood credentials. Let me lay one before you. Gather round.
Come on, it’s a cracker, you’ll not find its like.
My company was stationed “somewhere in Europe”, I don’t remember the name of the grim town
We were besieging. It was well fortified
With gates chains embrasures machicolations Batteries redouts vigilantes and god knows what,
A bristly sort of come-and-get-me place
We had tried in vain to penetrate.
Logic, I said to myself, think logic.
We cannot infiltrate, what’s left but up
Up and over, what goes up and over?
A balloon? Don’t be silly, they’d shoot it down. There’s only one way, and I should emphasise
I was at the peak of my physical powers –
A long time ago, yes yes I know –
I climbed up onto our biggest cannon
And when the next huge ball began to emerge
I jumped it, like on horseback, and was off Whizzing into the smoky air. Aha,
I thought, this is how to do it! But then,
Halfway towards the enemy, I wondered:
Would they not catch me, string me up as a spy? Not good! I must get back, but back how?
Logic again saw just one solution:
Transfer to the next enemy cannonball
Coming towards me: a delicate operation,
But I accomplished it, and so back home.
Not the most glorious of episodes,
I hear you say. Oh but it was, it was!
Was the siege lifted? I really don’t know.
Did the enemy surrender? I cannot recall.
What I remember is the exhilaration
Of the ball between my knees like a celestial horse And the wind whistling its encouragement
And at the high point of my flight an eagle Shrieking at the usurper of that space
Between ground and sky, between friend and foe, Between the possible and the impossible.
I shrieked back to the wild bird in my gladness. What an unearthly duet – but life, life!