This poem was inspired by a dream I had in which I was at some kind of reunion at which my old headmaster, Joseph Safkin (1909-1985) was the guest of honour. The poem, like most dream-inspired writing is probably more about me than the eponymous Mr Safkin.

Many thanks to Claire Goldie for the main photograph and Barry Jacques for the one of Mr Safkin.


I had a dream, but not like MLK’s,

Poor man, who was shot when I was at school.

In the dream I was back at my alma mater

A technical school…red brick conformity;

Sadly, along with my childhood, now long gone.

Our headmaster was one Joseph Safkin,

His name out of place (like that of a Cold War spy)

In amongst the Ackroyds, Nutters and Tattersalls,

Those fine solid-sounding Lancashire names,

Hand carved out of the Pennine millstone grit.

Even at our old school, he was ‘old school’.

The swinging sixties tried their best to get in

But it would only have been over his dead body.

His use of the word ‘Cinema’ with a hard ‘C’,

When speech day at The Grand came around

Was an anachronism that came from…where?

His time at the L.S.E.? A rendezvous in Vienna?

He would breeze about the quadrangles,

Never leaving the school’s original buildings.

His home remained in the recalled academia

Not the harsh modern surfaces of a technical school.

‘Joe Crow!’ (back then, who would have dared?)

As his black cloak billowed out behind him,

Chugging like a tiny Black Five steam train;

A Hornby OO puffing out clouds of St Bruno

Into the rarefied air of his academic ideals.

His march of stasis through the clearing kids;

Ignoring all but those likely offenders

That sullied his aesthetic standards.

The long-haired, sideburned, and moustachioed;

The short-skirted, thigh-booted and ear-ringed,

Who were pulled up and steadfastly redressed.

Like most kids I kept out of his way.

Only ever spoke to him the once…

Not much of a conversation really…

One way…the cane was mentioned in passing

And that swish was as close as it ever got.

Summoned to his office, after my own mother

Grassed me up for playing truant.

I must have been a disappointment to him;

An erstwhile Lancastrian Billy Casper

Standing there in my worn blazer.

The scruffy urchin, in a grey shirt.

(Never had a white shirt in five years.

Mum said I would just get them dirty

And a grey one would last the week out).

But in the dream, I am wearing a white shirt.

The boys, now grown (no girls! Dreams, eh?)

Are uniform in black sweater and trousers.

An homage perhaps to our guest of honour.

And then he arrives to ecstatic applause,

Smiling at the adulation, arms raised

In a Polynesian multi-coloured overshirt

(More colours than a Jackson Pollock!)

With smart beige chinos and trainers beneath.

He high-fives everyone on the front row,

And then asks for a volunteer.

He wants someone to give him a hug.

I step forward…parting the crowd, 

The kid ever careful to stay in the shadows…

Never, ever called up to the school stage,

Steps up on his own terms as a man.

We embrace and at my proposal that we dance,

He grins with delight and takes the lead

As the pair of us waltz around the room.

© gray lightfoot