Turner’s Subversive Boat

The painter, Turner,

Hid in a boat on the Thames

In 1851.

He’d moored it mid-stream

So those taking the Census

Couldn’t question him –

He slyly ducked state snoops

Determined to snaffle up

His life’s last detail

For anonymous

Government authorities.

He preferred to be

Known for dream landscapes;

For ‘The Fighting Temeraire’;

For his red-gold skies;  

Stonehenge at sunset;

Salisbury Cathedral’s spire

Wreathed in brooding mist;

Wreckers’ rugged coasts;

Seascapes of Northumberland.

He’d stay out all night

To catch next day’s dawn

Then he’d paint it as timeless –

The light of the world.

He’d beat cold weather

With layers of silk handkerchiefs

Hanging from his hat –

This man in a boat,

J. Mallord William Turner,

Freeborn Englishman –

Choosing to live by

Ignoring the powers that be

And plying his oars,

Looking for beauty

In whatever caught his eye

As well as for truth.

In Turner’s painting

‘The Slave Ship’, bodies in chains

Are thrown overboard

By the slaves’ masters

To be set upon by sharks –

A routine practice

When the slave owners

Found their cargo troublesome,

Or too ill to treat;

Unprofitable to feed,

Or just pining to be free.

The snares of the State

Are now much subtler,

But slaves are still rounded up,

Farmed for their taxes,

Spied on by cameras,

Questioned by nosy strangers

Filling in dull forms

Such as the Census,

So the State may know who’s who

If there’s civil unrest.

Bobbing in his boat

And never to be enslaved,

Turner ruled the waves.

Heathcote Williams


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