In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

The Travails of Gordon Brown


Here is a poem about the last Emperor of Byzantium. I sent it recently to a married couple I know, who both liked it. She said it’s about me. He said it’s about Gordon Brown.

The idea behind the poem is that we are all now inheritors of fallen cities, walls of security which have been broken. The fugitive fox has much to teach us.

We are also perhaps no less apt than ever our ancestors were to go after those who stand or speak out, people we can blame for our woes, confusions and pain. So we are fox-hunters as well, baying with the hounds.

The Travails of the Last Emperor

by Rogan Wolf


dedicated here to the Right Honourable Gordon Brown, MP, with thanks.

For centuries, Constantinople, capital of  Byzantium, was the greatest city in the world. Historians maintain that when it fell in the fifteenth century, its last Emperor died on the walls.  But his body was never found and we are free to consider another  possibility : that he simply wandered away  –  on the one side to Thrace,  or on the other, Anatolia …

Part 1

The Emperor at Kerbside



I saw you tonight,

creeping like a sickly fox

across our street.

The camera’s bound

to have caught you

in that glare

of white light

at the corner –

would it miss ?

I didn’t know

you were still going,


with your City

a charnel yard

of stone

and bone

and shard

of fine crockery.

There you presided.

Can death

be worse than this ?


Between our blurred and broken lines

the fox is worth picking out.

He guards the word on the tip of all tongues

the telling we are frantic to avoid.

He slips between the cars at kerbside

his home his own slinking

his homelessness our street.


He has moved in !

I heard him last night

scuffling by the open window

emasculating my arrangements there.

This morning

as I put the garden

back together again,

I knew he was watching me

from my window !


All my life since setting out

I have carried fragments and relics

mementoes of a time intact.

The city is fallen,

undone and irretrievable.

Bowed archaeologists scraping about

shall not ease my desolation.

The City is fallen.

I am the ruins.


He makes grin

his mask

and he spins in the air

his stink

and lightly


and lightly

he shits.

He has no shame

in his matter.

His game

is defiance of death.


There are real advantages

to being nowhere nowhen

no profile

on the radar screen.

I am the broken emperor

so when I materialise

surface breaks

queues scatter

and mouths gape in wild surmise.


Fox feathery and starved tonight

emerges from a bank of ivy.

His back arches, he walks on tip-toe

and his tail is like the skeleton of a wing.

The cats take no notice of him.

They know that they’ll be alive tomorrow.


The stillness of the Voice on Sinai

foxed Moses. He’d made that arduous ascent

in full expectation of Grandeur and Majesty.

Still, small and crucified day upon day

(until at last

one day of sorrow

He’ll  simply give up the ghost),

this was not the God he thought had promised

to show his people the Way.


Cities in the desert

picked over by camera and crow –

history grows dim

the present points to sorrow.

June 2007



Part 2

The Emperor Unclothed


Who was that boy

who said the emperor

was merely naked ?

The boy died of course

almost at once

his flesh in gobbets

scattered across the hills.

Perhaps he was blind.

For the emperor wore that day

the sheen of his apartness

and a shadow so long

it girded the earth.


Have at you, Highness –

clear of  the multitudes

free of the robes.

You’re just quarry now

shoulders bare and shining ahead –

fair game.

We’ll paddle in you,

your excellency,

you’ll do us good.


A young fox

most of his fur missing

pads the ridge of the garden wall.

He knows he doesn’t belong here

and to survive the night

he must glide to perfection

between each holding

he must slide with precision

around each lit space.


That wide-eyed small boy

who proclaimed the obvious to his neighbours

didn’t live long enough to see the truth –

that truth is unendurable

but learning you’ve bowed for years to a lie

can drive you to murder.


And the fox said to the boy emperor

“follow me.

Let me guide you

through my web of shadow

to where the truth lies hidden

precarious as an embryo.

Let us sidle


August 2007



Part 3

The Last Emperor in Chaotic Times


The last emperor stirs.

Chaos inspires him.

It brings back memories

of earlier convulsions

when he was the apex

uppermost in disaster.

Now citadels collapse again

and strange new progeny stagger

sleek and bewildered

across our blasted fields.

The last emperor hunches

into a ball, wheezy and crackling

and hurries to join them.

He is sure this time

he will be our chosen one.

But what is there left to say ?

It has all been used up.

All the great redemptive words

fizzed and burned out

almost the instant they entered time

and for millennia

they’ve hung in countless rooms

like lumps of raw clay

twisted and re-modelled

to ennoble and justify

the frets and furies that have always been.

But the last emperor

has no need of hope.

He lost it ages back

amongst the paraphernalia

of cities and face

and full diaries.

This is child’s play.

Yes indeed, oh yes indeed

there’s nothing left to say.

He sings to himself happily.

Against the odds another chance.

Against all the odds another chance.

Let’s try.


The last emperor confided

resting his feet, reaching for the water jug –

“I had a cheering thought today.

I realised the past is just

another set of possibilities

as rich in guidance and new ideas

as anything present or still to come.

The dead may still belong in the dance.”

The last emperor was almost weeping now.

“And straightaway, the walls of my City

renewed themselves in my mind

and the dead rose from their mass graves

took back their faces, their noble eyes,

and became again my counsellors,

comforting me with their wit and high learning.”


When the great City fell all those years ago

the emperor had to give up communicating

with crowds. Now he secretes words in code

under stones and between buses, whisperings

deep in caves by the shore, scribblings

borne in small balloons loosed to ride hurricanes.

It’s more intimate that way, he says,

more telling

more effective in getting his message across.


He tends to avoid caves for his resting.

They are too obvious and accessible.

He goes for between-space

and between-time

on the edges of snug living.

Fly-tips do well, for instance,

or gaps between fences

in the more established parts of suburbia

where arguments over boundaries

can open things up a bit.

Allotment huts have proved satisfactory

shared with the odd fox or down-and-out,

or patches of spare paving beneath bridges

beyond where the cyclists pass.

And like the kestrel and the red kite

he is drawn to the motorway

and will often bed down within feet

of the juggernauts

blasting through

their sharp beams searching infinity

all night.


Since the last emperor lost his name

he’s been invisible.

He asks himself,

does it matter

where I place myself

if no one can find me there ?

He wanders from city to quiet fastness

and there’s no difference

except in the impact on him.

No one knows he has gone

and no one takes note of his arrival.

Yet on the mountain trail

he adds a small stone

to each cairn he passes.

There is no name on it

and no one will know

he placed it there.

But the stones will continue

to serve and guide

once the emperor is dead.

I’ve learned to be

an invisible servant

says the last emperor

to himself.

October 2008