The Comrades Marathon

2009-05-22 00:00

In memoriam Victor Clapham

Well Vic, I wonder what you’d make of this,

I mean the flag-hung square, the jostling crowds,

a helicopter clattering through the dark,

runners in their thousands, massed down the street,

and someone famous being interviewed

in a bright white glare on the steps of City Hall.


I wish you could be here, right here with us,

dressed in your baggy shorts and tennis shoes,

smelling the wintergreen, the nervous sweat

and feeling strange pricklings in your skin

as speakers boom the anthem down the street

that lifts the day from normal into epic time.


Look at the scaffolding, the tents, the bins,

the marshals with clipboards and yellow bibs.

They do this for nothing, year after year.

It’s a bit like a local Olympics now,

all sorts of money-scheming hangers-on

but still, somehow, decency on a podium.


Isn’t it much, much bigger than you thought?

At times I’ve wondered what was in your mind

when back home from the war to end all wars

you’d sit in the hot steel cab of your train

swabbing your neck and chest with cotton waste

and slowly swigging a bottle of cold sweet tea.


Tell me, didn’t it churn you up inside —

watching each day across the shunting yard

the salesmen on the platform in white shirts,

the women in high-heels and fancy hats

saying goodbye with a kiss and a wave

as if their dads and uncles hadn’t died at all?


Didn’t you really hate it when young blokes

with slicked-back hair in the Railways Hotel

would turn away from you, beer-mug in hand,

and switch the talk to Saturday’s races

the moment you even mentioned the war

and passing round the hat for a memorial?


That must have got to you, as if your pals

who’d marched their youth along the street

in row on row of boots and bayonets,

on their way north to mud and death in France,

weren’t even worth a few words in a bar.

Is that why you dreamed us into this marathon?


Well Vic, each year, out of that dream emerge

not just the rugby types you started with,

that group of balding friends in boxing vests

trotting off down a farm road with a laugh,

but men and women of all sorts and shapes,

the black, the blonde, the bronze of our humanity.


Does hope, a marathon of hope like this,

you make me ask, remind the heart of grace?

Look, Vic, at what you got going with pride,

a huge, jostling ritual of human decency

whose athletes set off down a cheering street

then toil across the landscape of South Africa.


•Chris Mann is honorary professor of poetry at Rhodes.

Chris Mann

In memoriam Victor Clapham

Chris Mann

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