Jane Symonds

wordsmith and mongrel

Category: Best Of


The same cars that preceded the President of the Republic sedately along the Champs Elysées during the military parade, speed ahead of him, 12 hours later, to Place Beauvau.

I was on a rooftop when I got the news, perched amid the chimneys and turrets of Paris’ skyline with the Eiffel Tower effervescing in the distance. I’d gone up there with a man I barely knew to watch the fireworks and when my friend sent me a message saying, are you ok? I assumed she meant, he’s not a creep is he?

But then.

A truck has crashed into a crowd in Nice. They think it’s terrorists.

We had come so close. There were only minutes left of the 14th, the national holiday, and we had almost got through it, clustering in defiant joy along grand boulevards and in vast parks and beside famous seafronts, flags in our hands, shouting bravo! for the sapeurs-pompiers in their shiny helmets, lifting children onto our shoulders to be a little nearer the pyrotechnic peonies that bloomed in clear summer skies.

France needs the 14th, people had told me with quiet but emphatic nods. After November, today is important, to be happy.

And we were happy, or at least it seemed that way. The police who patted us down before we entered the exclusion zone around the Champs Elysées to watch the parade were businesslike but warm, bordering on unexpected friendliness. Men with idle machine guns gave cheerful directions to bewildered tourists. The officers in plainclothes dispersed among the crowd joked and grinned, prodding us to cheer loudest when their unit marched past, putting gentle arms around a woman having a dizzy spell.

In the afternoon we spilled onto grass, laden with rosé and cheese and prosciutto, and basked in uninterrupted sunshine. We talked away the long evening until at 10:58 we fell silent and expectant, turning to our skies or our televisions, waiting for the first shock of beautiful, violent colour that would explode harmlessly above us.

But then.

Choosing Nice was brutally clever. Recognisable, beloved, packed with locals and tourists, but perhaps without the extreme level of security that encircled Paris.

As I descend from the rooftop another friend asks, are you okay? Rumours of smoke on the Champs Elysées. I stop on the silent street and wonder: is this it? Is this the moment when I go from optimistic observer to endangered citizen? Twitter tells me it’s a fire caused by a stray firework and I fall back from afraid into sad. I look along the silent street and wonder how they do it, the people who live in places where they get those messages every day. The people for whom the smoke is almost never just a wayward spark. The people for whom a jet flyover is not a spectator sport. How do they keep going?

I hurry home but I do not sleep until 2am. I send a lot of pre-emptive messages and a lot of responses to concerned questions but I am safe, so very safe. The flicker of police lights fills my tiny flat from the television screen. I do not cry until a reporter says, there are many children among the dead.

I am desperately sad but not surprised and that makes me even sadder. This place we are in has no exit that I can see. This morning we paraded our military might in all its splendour but what good is might against a truck and some reckless hate? When the danger worms its way into isolated minds and springs up in unexpected places, the tanks and fighter jets start to look as anachronistic as the cavalry with their swords and the soldiers in their Napoleonic hats.

I can see a myriad of ways this is going to be responded to, and I don’t like any of them. I am as afraid of what we will do as what they will do.

All I know is that I would go back, today, if there were another parade. I would dance again on the Champ de Mars and I would follow the crowd to the spectacle. I would sit on busy terraces and I would duck under police barricades to get to concerts. I would move to Paris.

I would continue to live with bullish joy, and I would risk dying happy. Because I have that option. Because I’m one of the lucky ones. Because joy is the only weapon I have ever had to wield.

But then.

Today we are all Nice. Last week we were all Orlando. Last month we were Istanbul, and before that Brussels, and before that Paris. We should have been Dhaka and Baghdad and Aleppo and Mogadishu. It makes us feel better, to type these things, to stand electronically alongside grieving families. It makes us feel righteous, and ever so slightly less helpless. And in some small practical way it helps: hashtags on Twitter can identify the missing, find beds for the desperate, demand attention for the forgotten.

But it scares me too, because we really are all Nice. There is no longer a there and a here, a deadly and a safe, an us and a them. We all inhabit the same small world and it doesn’t work that way anymore. It feels like it’s not working at all. And I have no idea what we’re going to do about it.

Sultan Pub

Short-listed for the 2015 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.

Meet me at 19:30 at Sultanahmet. Come up from the elegant gloom of the Basilica Cistern, or down from the chattering alleys of the Grand Bazaar, or through – if it’s late April – the flame-petalled tulips that congregate outside the Blue Mosque. Step off the sleek tram that pulls into the Sultanahmet stop. Wander, replete with humus and charcoaled chicken and flatbread, from a table nearby.

Dart boldly across Divan Yolu, ignoring exhortations to spend a lira on roasted corn, to step aboard a Bosphorus cruise, to sample soft nougat rolled in pistachios.

Where the tramlines curve gracefully away toward the bright peace of Gülhane Park and beyond, to the spice market at Eminönü, to Galata Bridge draped in fishing lines, to the grand sweep of Istiklal Avenue up to Taksim Square, that’s where I’ll meet you.

Sultan Pub commands the corner: hiding in plain sight. Forgive its neon sign and its naff name and its tourist-trap location. Catch the eye of the host who strides back and forth outside. Return his warm handshake if you’ve been by before (he’ll remember). Follow his outstretched arm as he passes you along the human chain formed by his colleagues, each of them smiling and welcoming. The terrace, they’ll ask?

Say yes to the terrace.

Up the stairs, they’ll say, all the way, and you’ll climb and climb and curse me for suggesting this.

One last climb, a glorified ladder.

Meet me beneath the Turkish sky at a little table – one of only eight – covered in incongruous gingham.

Now ignore me entirely. Turn yourself instead to the 160-degree vista before you. Sweep your eyes up spires and down domes from the Aya Sofya to the Blue Mosque (minarets just beginning to glow), with the sea and the hazy shape of Asia, rose-tinted in the sunset, in between.

Absentmindedly order an expensive glass of local wine from one of the blue-shirted staff who are, by now, calling you friend, and understand that it’s not the wine you are paying for.

Watch the light fade over the water. Trace the leisurely trajectories of distant ships.

And after 8, fall silent as the call to prayer rolls out through the evening, now from the Blue Mosque, now from the Aya Sofya, as you – tiny, transient, blessed – eavesdrop on a thousand-year-old conversation between two mighty structures.

Sip the last of your wine as the muezzin’s voice fades off into the unseen edges of the city.

7:30, my friend. Don’t be late.


In 2015, you said, you’d go
(you who had never left these shores)
perhaps that’s why I took it up,
why you became we: in 2015
we’ll go

War broke out in 2012.
You were scared, when they said
you’re going into battle. I know
you were, I saw the tears, but you
strapped yourself in
cracked a joke
got your affairs in order, and
off you went

I remember we sat in wicker chairs, watching
stars glitter behind gum leaves, and listening
to the sounds of nothing. You told me you believed
we could win.
It’s not going to kill me, you said.

Like all the others before, you had
boyish faith in your survival.

The grim reality came later, the sounds and smells
the pain that went right through you. Still,
you never quite believed it;
never really thought you might not
make that ridge

In 2013 you lost your war.
We buried you in the rain, your hat
atop your coffin
your best boots on. In 2015 I’ll go alone
to mourn you in a place you’ve never been.

Where the lost things are

Sometimes I like to think that
all the lovers we have had
and lost
live together somewhere, in
houses built of bobby pins, sleeping
under blankets stitched from
left socks, and
using spare keys
as currency.


We went storming into summer like
hell bent on riches, wild
with lust for the new
and the unseen
young and drunk with

like invaders, we found
did we bring it or was it
already there? soaking
up the sun.
our sun.

Rent and yet
God knew how
we marched grimly into autumn.
Come at us you
we intoned
and its leaves began to fall in
ordered rows

By winter we were
hard as steel, and seasoned
bold without haste
steady without stagnance
our memories petrified
into armour
our jaws set in solemn
expecting nothing

and yet
and yet
and yet
no matter where we trod, with
our grim feet
hope flowered like so many weeds
born of the cold, it grew
in places we couldn’t reach
in tendrils we couldn’t kill


Long-listed for the 2014 Hunter Writers Centre Grieve Writing Competition.

Against your dying, I lit
candles by proxy in distant cathedrals, comforted somehow by
flames that burned so far away, beneath
the loving eye of lives already lived.

Yours was the old God of such
unyielding might, such
flawless lines, such remembered grandeur.
For your eternal destination, you looked back to
times you hadn’t seen, and maybe
I longed to light your way.

Yours was the God of answers, never
questions, but I was full of them: angry little heathen who worshipped
at the altar of reason, laying
obstinate obscenities at the feet of
so cruel a power.

Mine was the inherited God of
insidious guilt and gnawing doubt that ate away
your stone foundations. While your God demanded
only service, I demanded of mine explanations
and justifications.
I made pleas to my God of understanding; I struck matches
off my agony and fed the fire with my rage
and I lit tiny lights in places where I had been
happy, storing up warmth for a future
without you, when I would have to
relearn joy

I never saw them go out
those candles I lit for you: never saw them
extinguished as you were when you lay
empty on your hospital bed
never saw their final wisp of being float away to seek
their gods, and I choose to believe
they never did

Dear Papa


I pray you went with angel song
that Mother Mary took your work-worn hand
and led you home
that you found peace
and glory
and God
I pray Heaven was as you imagined it, from
faith, and books,
and tradition

but I can’t help but believe that Heaven
is a custom fit
and somehow clouds and harps don’t fit with you.

Papa, this is what I hope.
I hope where you are now, there are
old friends and family
yarns spun in tin sheds
or on creaking verandahs
I hope the Bundy is cold
and poured strong
and the Coke with it good, not bad, for you
I hope for every meal there’s ham steaks
cream and custard
cheese in thick slices
white bread

I hope no one feeds you pumpkin
or grows geraniums,
that all the books are non-fiction and
there aren’t too many trimmings on the Rosary
and that everyone understands you even when
you stumble over your words because your mind
goes too fast for your mouth.

I hope you are strong and whole
that there are no hot water bottles
or chiropractors
or drugs
because they are never needed
that your joints never ache
and your fingers never stiffen
(and that you never run any more
through saws)

I hope not that you are on holiday –
Heaven knows you’re not cut out for them –
but I hope you spend your days doing what you love.
I hope
the soil is fertile
the rain comes when it should
crops ripen and cattle calve
that there’s someone else to do the fencing
and service the Rover
that parts never break
or pipes leak
that there’s a dairy cow for you to milk each morning
but that those mornings are never too cold
that the wood is always ironbark
and the neighbours always trustworthy
and everyone knows what Shingle Hut is, and that you
are the man who conquered it

I hope there are no tyrekickers, now,
that buyers buy and sellers sell
that more cheques come in
than go out
that no one phones on Sundays

I hope that where you are
they let in the odd politician, or perhaps
keep a few as captives
so there’s always someone to debate with.
I hope everyone knows a thing or two
about local history, and realises that to see the way your eyes,
your bright blue eyes,
light up when you talk about it
is a privilege beyond measure

I hope you find that everything you believed in
everything you fought for
was right
I hope you see your battles won
and worth the effort
I hope,
I’m sorry, you won’t like it, but I hope,
that someone’s making a bloody big fuss
about a living legend, no longer living
but ever a legend,
and I hope you’re letting them.

I hope that bastard cancer took you because
the place you are now needed you;
needed a man to get things done
to solve problems
to carry on
to engender fervent respect in everyone he met.
I hope in the evenings now
when you come home to stretch out white feet
and shake the sawdust from your hankie
that there are no worries to trouble that noble brow
no black dog to howl inside
that mighty mind.

I hope you see us, when you want to:
see our loving grief
our fond memories
the way we shake our heads and laugh about you
see your wife’s courage
your children’s success
see your grandchildren grow strong and beautiful and perhaps
quite a bit like you
see the hole you leave in several hundred hearts

and for my part, I hope
you see me living
see me being brave and stubborn and clever
see me being capable
(though sometimes I’ll misbehave, and I hope
you’ll know when to look away)
I hope you don’t see me make mistakes
or better still
I hope you see me make a million
and understand that every single one
makes me me;
I hope you see me
get angry and foolish and tangled
see me sort things out
see me pick up and carry on
see me never give up on trying to be
better than I am.

I hope that where you are, you’ll read
every word I write,
and though you won’t understand them
you will understand how important they are to me

Papa, I hope you know that
the rain will never sound the same
now you are not beneath it
that God help every man I meet because
they’ll never measure up
that I will miss you every day and wish
you were still here
that I’ll long for you to say
Hey, Mac, and ruffle my hair
or call me your little baby when we stand
shoulder to shoulder
that I will live for the moments when my mother says
(generally in a tone of some
Oh you’re so like your father!

and that sometimes
I won’t be able to breathe for thinking
how lucky I was, to have a man of such principles
and intellect
as my father.

Go well, Papa.

In the key of C

Shortlisted for the 2012 Cricket Poetry Award. I’m not sure I’ve ever been prouder.

Played on AM airwaves
opened with the crackle of a dial, fielded
by news broadcasts on the hour

a melody in baritone within
a symphony, starring
songs my mother sang while dusting
the pop of corrugated iron under sun
the creak of French doors opened onto
verandahs where swallows dropped afterlives
of insects caught whirring
in fields of golden grass, or leaping
to avoid a passing hoof.

Later, cricket took shape beneath my fingers
like Braille
the decaying rubber handle of
a hand-me-down bat
the balding skin of tennis balls that bounced
too high off leaf-littered concrete

and later still, droplets that condensed
on cups of beer
the stiff warmth of cotton shirts on men
who sat beside me at the Gabba, when cricket
became something I could see

but even then the symphony played on;
the ABC in my ear,
the hum of summer holidays
in my heart.

Live to leave

Provence smells of roses and lavender, of chilled wine and Pastis, of tomatoes fresh from the garden, of basil on quick fingers, of soft white cheese crushed onto baguettes still warm from the boulangère’s oven, of sunshine on smooth stones, of Nutella crèpes beside clear canals, of moss, of chicken roasting, of steak, of 50+ sunscreen, of long afternoons.

Paris smells of someone else’s cigarettes, and tastes of them too, smoked down to the tips of my fingers at 3 in the morning on a side street in the Marais. It tastes of coffee, strong and sweet, of buttery pastry, of Long Island Iced Tea, of a Frenchman’s stubbled cheek, of light rain over gravestones, of pretzels shared with old friends, of pizza, of thé vert, of soup du jour in Rodin’s garden, of picnics on the TGV.

Marseille sounds like sirens, like seagulls, like breaking waves, like stallholders crying “uneurouneurouneuro”, like squeals of delight as old friends spy one another across busy streets, like horns, like traffic, like wind in a thousand masts, like a language I understand without having to concentrate, like sand under bare feet, like plates being slid onto tables, like glasses clinking, like buskers, like reggae, like a tiny Citroën’s engine straining up Rue Vauvenargues, like a shutter clicking, like the metro rattling into La Timone.

Holidays look like tanned shoulders, like familiar faces, like permanent smiles, like photos taken for the seventh time, like old haunts, like the sea, like sparklers, like speedometers reading 130 km/hr, like breathtaking mountain views, like windswept hair, like a quivering lip and teardrops swiped from eyelashes.

France feels like home.

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