12 DECEMBER 1998, Page 68


Sorry about that


IN COMPETITION NO. 2063 you were invited to imagine that our next Poet Laureate obeys a royal request for a poem apologising for the British Empire.

Not too little, not too much, as the old advertisement for shaving soap used to say — in this case not too little irony, so that the apology is unamusingly abject, nor too much, so that it ceases to be any sort of apology at all. Grovelling penitence and naked sarcasm were both out of place, which left me only a dozen possible win- ners, among whom were Basil Ransome- Davies, John Stanley and Michael Swan, whose sardonic last three lines had real power: It's not enough to beat our breasts and grieve. To those we hanged and shot we freely grant A posthumous reprieve. The prizewinners, printed below, get £25 each, and the bottle of The Macallan The Malt Scotch whisky is D.A. Prince's for the most light-hearted list of our imperial sins.

To former Empire nations we address this ode by royal decree as some amends for history.

In days when you were coloured red on every map, Great Britain led you by the nose, or so it's said.

Our effortless supremacy you took for granted then, and we bestowed on you this legacy: cricket and class distinctions; laws; Brown Windsor soup; the clean-cut jaws of English heroes; Santa Claus; High Anglican theology; the afternoon's great ritual, tea; that London's the only place to be.

We owe you this apology. (D.A. Prince) We're sorry about the Indians - We feel we should hide our faces; We try to forget we united So many different races.

We're sorry about the Americans - We stupidly threw them away; We try to forget we laid down Foundations for their today.

We're sorry about the Australians - We felt we must empty our jails; We try to forget we taught cricket Even to New South Wales. We're sorry about the Africans - Our missions were rarely a wow; We try to forget they're the only Orthodox Anglicans now. (Paul Griffin) For the madness of Chatham's imperial drive, For the grabbing of Wolfe and the thieving of Clive, For the land-hogging treaties we warred to contrive, Sorry!

For the truculent frigates patrolling the seas, As the colonists wallowed in masterful ease With their sundowners, punkahs and springy whangees, Sorry!

For cock-hatted governors preening and prancing, For traders with gin that would stop you advancing, And missionaries down on indigenous dancing, Sorry!

For the whole unremitting imperial blight Which left us poor Britons in Stygian night Till Clement and Harold restored us to light, Sorry! (Chris Tingley) Please forgive the things we did. We didn't mean to hurt you In claiming massive tracts of land And every little virtue.

We really thought our British blood Superior to others', And spilt so much in proving it Few girls were left with brothers.

Although we stole your pot and plate To gawp at in museums, That's just our way; we're sorry, too, For looting mausoleums.

What can I say? Well, only that The ones who should pay can't pay; And, as first female Laureate, That men are like that, aren't they?

(Geoff Thurman) For splashing red across the map, For keeping down the darker chap, For ruling, ruthlesssly, the waves, For turning free men into slaves, And many women into whores, And for the dead of countless wars, And all the camouflaging lies, We do apologise.

For grabbing land by force or stealth, For shipping out the natural wealth, For all those missionary pests, For night alarms and false arrests, And massacres to clear the street, And arrogance and white conceit, And attitudes condemned to harden, We humbly beg your pardon.

(G.M. Davis) The British Empire, you will find, Was a fit of absent mind.

When first we opened dreamy eyes, It came as a complete surprise.

We did for you the best we could, But men are made of crooked wood, And those we helped were seldom grateful, Even sometimes found us hateful!

Regretfully we left your land, Hoping you would understand. We were genuinely sad, And not altogether bad.

We left our language and our law, Blue-eyed children to the poor. These lines we send by royal request: Apologies. We did our best. (T. Griffiths)