There is a new book out called The Big Book Of Little Poems in which various celebrities have been asked to provide a favourite short poem. One of them is Tony Blair. Now, Tony Blair is not a person you would associate with poetry, as anyone will testify who heard him recite his poem to the TUC. But I expect that when the editors of the book, Roger McGough and Gyles Brandreth, put the contents together, they had no idea that Tony Blair couldn’t handle poetry.
On the other hand, maybe they did know, and that is why they asked him to nominate someone else’s short poem.
Which he did.
(Or somebody did for him.)
I wonder if you can guess which one he (or someone) chose? Yes, you’re right - nothing left wing. Yes, you’re right - something rippling with dewy-eyed emotion. Yes, you’re right - something already very popular and well-tested in the market place. Yes, you’re right - something written by a young, charming, talented, glamorous man just like Blair himself. It was Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, with its famous opening lines, “If I should die, think only this of me”.
The only major difference between Blair and Brooke is that Brooke seems to have written the poem entirely unaided. Not a single fellow scriptwriter was involved, not a single focus group was consulted; not a single spin-doctor was called to the bedside of the ailing sonnet. By Blair’s standards, it is desperately under-researched, unfocussed and under-written.
So over the weekend I enlisted the aid of the mighty Independent computer to reshape the poem in a more Blairite image. First of all I fed into the computer all known facts about Blair. I followed it up with a selection of press cuttings about him Then I fed all his known speeches and writings into the machine. Then the whole system crashed. After a little first aid, the computer came back to life, with a rather piteous print-out reading: 'Why are you doing this to me?'.
I instructed it curtly to let me have no nonsense, explained briefly the rules of scansion and rhyme, and ordered him to let me have the poem rewritten in appropriate style. Less than three minutes later the screen flickered and I read a sonnet starting:
If I should die, ‘twill be in Tuscany,
Lovingly in Tuscan earth enfurled,
And on my simple gravestone you will see:
“Farewell New Labour, Hello New Afterworld!”.
I stopped him there, as the Tuscan note seemed rather irrelevant to me,, and instructed him to start again, with perhaps a more domestic note.
This, a bit later, was the result.
If I should die, killed rudely in my prime,
By some assassin’s knife brought cruelly down,
Ask not who could have done this senseless crime.
Just go and clap the cuffs on Gordon Brown...
The machine clearly wasn’t getting the idea. I asked him to try again, this time taking a broader view of death. I got this....
If I should die, think only this of me,
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
Which I had bombed and blasted personally
Until a new and lasting peace was sealed.
Saddam Hussein, Milosevic and all,
Were bloody tyrants, so they had to go.
I dropped the bombs, but did not see them fall
And who they killed I really do not know...
I stopped there. He still hadn’t got the right Blair feel. More emotion! I demanded.
‘I can only simulate emotion !’ the machine replied, pathetically. ‘I cannot actually feel it.’
‘I know that!’ I told it curtly. ‘That’s why I chose you to do a Blair pastiche. Now get on with it!’
This time he must have taken to heart the notion that Blair likes to dispense with verbs at time of emotion....
If I should die, o do not weep for me!
Weep only if my mission is undone.
I vowed to set the nation’s people free,
I vowed that equal justice would be won.
I vowed to give you all a decent wage.
A chicken in your pot. More trains, not less.
Gay soldiers. A new drinking age.
The end of queuing in the NHS.
(I vowed a lot of things, because a vow
Improved my ratings 10% with Mori )
If I should die, oh, promise, promise now
You will not, next time round, elect a Tory ...
I gave up there. It wasn’t even a proper sonnet, after all.
The Independent Monday Oct 4 1999