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Picture 11999490, photograph by John Gay, 1960s, image copyright Mary Evans / Historic England

Unreal City
by John Bowen


The dawn fog pads low, softening

footsteps to an anonymous purr

It sidles against buildings,

paws the fingers of steel and glass

as they grope for light and warmth

above the polluted gauze.

A yellow eyed sun winks through

a gap in the veil and is gone,

biding its time to pounce.


Each streetwise second waits

its moment to slit my pocket,

run off with my humanity

and lose itself among the crowds,

as they shuffle over bridges,

in and out of train stations,

or loiter at bus terminals.


Near blind in the murk, I smell

the diesel and damp pavement grime.

Hear the Babel of voices.

Small conspiracies, whispered behind

hands in cafes and doorways.

Inhale the whiff of a city’s

indifferent hostility, as it gets ready

to put on its business face

and hustle through another day.


I pass the husks of those,

hollowed by injustice or illness.

They offer up their misfortune

with eyes that follow, shaming

for a quid’s worth of compassion

Signs that bleed: ‘Hungry and Homeless’,

behind upturned baseball caps,

open like the beaks of baby chicks.


My city smarts unravel

like a ball of string, that slips

from my fingers, chased down

the gutter by the fog. Hooded,

head down, arms furled round.

my face damp with fine mist

I join the dying on London Bridge.



© John Bowen

Picture 11999490, photograph by John Gay, 1960s, image copyright Mary Evans / Historic England



John Bowen is a widower in his early 70s, living in South London where he was born and grew up. He had a brief spell in professional football before going to university to study English. Most of his working life was spent as an Emergency Duty Social Worker until he retired in 2014. He has been writing poetry for well over 40 years on and off, but it has only been since the death of his partner, and the need to find an outlet for his grief, that he has taken the subject seriously.


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