Cromwell’s Head

In 1661 Charles II ordered Oliver Cromwell’s corpse to be exhumed and decapitated. The head was displayed for over twenty years on the roof of Westminster Hall as a warning to republicans everywhere. Cromwell’s Head looks at history through the eyes of Britain’s first and only republican leader, telling the story of a ‘headless people’ who were forced to march to the top of the hill and down again – from the violent end of empire to the coronation of Charles III. Grimly comic and comically grim, a natural sequel to Jim Greenhalf’s previous Smokestack collections Breakfast at Wetherspoons and Dummy!

Author portrait by Pete Cushway

Sample Poems

Imperial Exodus

Did you see it, the last boat leaving?
Thank God they’ve gone. Good riddance.
All those years they’ve been telling us
what to do and how they want it done.
Things can only get better now, they say.
No more Pax this and Pax that.
When was the last time we did anything
out of order? That’s what they’ve done to us.
The light will be purer now that its gleam
is unsullied by blood and eagles in their arenas.
And they call us barbarians!
They treated us like refugees in our own country:
changing our habits, our customs, words;
taking our women, thrusting themselves at us
like belly-piercing swords.
We paid for their empire, did their dirty work,
served as auxiliaries, while they tossed off
in their hillside summer villas.
Why did we let them do it for so long?

Well that’s that, then. Four centuries
of empire in our wake. Down the hole.
I’m sorry to be going back.
Nothing glorious in that old ruin
of slaves and foreigners,
pouring like water across our borders.

Were we too dependent on them
to keep our way of life in order?
They said they were serving us,
but weren’t they also serving themselves?
They knew we hadn’t the money
to pay for our armies at home and abroad.

Fiddling, corruption, laziness, cowardice:
did we civilise the world for this?
We, who stand on the shoulders of
indomitable men of steel and marble?
I’ll piss in the cup and pour a libation
on the head of any fat pontificating fool,

beating out the rhythm of our decline
like some mad hortator, dragging us back
to that bargain basement of fools and whores.
They won’t survive; without us to protect them
they’ll be eaten alive by jackals and wolves.
Too late for warnings. Do you think we’ll be missed? 

Breaking the Circle

As the last US Sea King rises above Saigon,
again; as bulletins ricochet
and the old newsreels are re-run –
jet planes crashing in,
topless towers imploding;
brown shirts, black shirts,
on the march –
are the last days of Pompeii
really here

Aristotle told world-conquering Alexander:
beware of history repeating itself.
First as tragedy then as farce,
Karl Marx or Brian Rix
added two thousand years later.

Having survived the news of wars, wars, wars –
Ulster, Iraq and Afghanistan –
am I, are we, any wiser?
We are mostly in the dark, drip-fed
by plasma screens
the size of football pitches
as, once again, farce bleeds into tragedy.

Better a Fool than a Monster

Does all the murdering maiming us daily
signify a world that’s gone to the devil?
After all, Goodwood continues,
the towers of Ripon Cathedral still stand,
lifeboats and air-sea rescue risk life to save it.

With or without God,
death does not go unopposed.
We say, better the devil you know;
but what if death, famine, pestilence and war
are the only things you know?

Better a fool than a monster with a vision.
Prospero’s brave new world of cloud-capped towers
and gorgeous palaces is best left to Disney –
not a brownfield site on the road to Damascus.

Armistice Sunday

Roads are being cordoned off with cones.
Around local war memorials men in high-vis bibs
arrange municipal chairs,
in readiness for the traditional fibs.
On the grid of a car-park where council offices
used to be, portable cabins raised on blocks
are staffed by masked recruits in blue.

They offer life-enhancing shots to my lucky generation
which escaped conscription when the law
was changed and we were freed
from the compulsion of compliance.
I see the young gathering again, arranged by uniform
in ranks. The discipline of doing this
gives them shape and purpose, I suppose.
I lasted a day in the Boys’ Brigade.

The Queen cannot manage the Cenotaph this year.
Next year, or sooner, the wreath may be hers,
as the nation, collectively, bids goodbye
or good riddance, to the second Elizabethan era.
Big guns will salute her passing into history,
as they announced her entry in 1953.
When she’s gone, I fear, we’ll all be charlies.

November 2021

Wednesday, 31 January 1649

Tuesday, monarchy ends on the block.
The day after, business as usual –
the real shock. Everything going on
as it did before two that cold afternoon
when they stopped the clock.
the King’s head was sewn back on,
the thread tied in a Windsor knot.

Nature appoints the wise to govern
the foolish, Milton wrote.
But what’s the news when nature
loses its head, and fools
are empowered to rule instead?

Cromwell’s Head

It took eight blows of the Tyburn axe
to separate Oliver Cromwell’s head
from the body that carried it
through Civil War and England’s
first and only Republic.

Impaled on a twenty-foot pike
outside Westminster Hall
for all the years of the cocker-spaniel
Parliament, as though a monstrous shrike
had fed on the Lord Protector:

plucking his eyes, then picking his brain,
as successive heads of state
rolled into Westminster and out again.
Bought and sold, passed around,
for three hundred years Cromwell’s

eyeless head stared impassively
as the battles he fought and won
had to be fought all over again.
Until the ground we stand upon
was ceded, surrendered or given away

by fools, self-seekers and worse
whom he had driven out of Parliament.
A Bible and sword his ball and sceptre.
In the reign of Elizabeth Windsor,
Cromwell’s head went underground;

but still it watches all that’s done
in the headless people’s name.
At a time unordered by rhyme or reason.
Call Andrew Marvell from his garden
to compose another ode for Cromwell’s pardon.


‘respects the reader’s intelligence, feeling its way into the minds of its narrators, not preaching at us…’

Sheenagh Pugh

‘I really like the way the biographical, the autobiographical and social commentary are balanced.’

Michael Stewart

‘There is a rigour and honesty to his writing which mocks sentimentality, and a blackness to his humour which is so well controlled that it never collapses into cynicism.’

Yorkshire Post

‘Greenhalf paints himself as moody, grumpy, awkward, a peripheral nay-sayer... but in these poems he is good company.’

Mistress Quickly’s Bed