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Elisabeth Hallett lived in China (Beijing and Hunan province) for many years, working as a teacher and editor.  She met her Chinese husband in Beijing and returns frequently on family visits. She now lives in Oxford. Mouse-wolf is her first published novel.

Elisabeth Hallett.jpg

On the Eve of the Beijing Olympics, August 2008

Elisabeth Hallett

I sit in a quiet room

Escaping the midday heat,

Fanning myself to keep cool,

Thinking with apprehension

Of the days and weeks to come.

Geraniums blaze on the balcony,

Helicopters cruise above,

An unfamiliar drone

In a sky that’s fierce and pale.

These are new and anxious times,

Times full of hope and of hate.


Last night I could not sleep

So I stood on the balcony,

The city was wide awake

Burning electricity

From low in the western suburbs

A giant beam scanned the sky

And lights on top of buildings

Flashed incessantly.

Tossing and turning on my mat of bamboo

These days I rarely sleep

The whole night through.


The message on the banners

Proclaims: ‘One World, One Dream’

Red lanterns hang from lampposts

The streets are swept and clean.

The brand-new buildings down the road

Are decorated black and gold.

The big names have moved in -

Starbucks, Adidas and Apple -

Life on the street no longer matters.

The fruit and vegetable man is gone,

The little stalls are all moved on.


This latest extravaganza

Has driven a culture mad

But powerful propaganda

Allows no room for the mad.

The critics bleat their message

But none want to hear what they say

For we’re anxious about survival

And making do for another day

And pride swells in our bosoms

For soon we too will be great -

On the eighth of the eighth of oh-eight!


Can pain become a habit

Buried too deep for words?

You cannot tell your children

If memory is banned,

You cannot show your children

The house where once you lived

For your house, your street, your neighbourhood

Is a patch of empty land -

Just a piece of real estate -

All you can feel is nothingness

Not bitterness, not hate.


‘One World, One Dream’ – who says

Whose world, whose dream?

The world I see around me now

Is not the world of my dreams.

A terrible homogeneity

Is spreading across the earth.

The joys of things being various

Is a dangerous thing to believe

Unless I agree that variety

Is determined by you, not by me.

And as long as I mutter no curse.


The athletes are arriving,

Presidents and heads of state

Are pouring in to our Beijing,

A robot mascot’s standing

Guard at the airport gate.

Empty eyes scan one and all

As they throng through the arrival hall

Tanned and tall, fit and strong

But why does it feel wrong?

Have I been here too long?

I drink my Starbucks tea and turn away.


The smiling youthful volunteers

Know little of their fathers’ tears.

Under the blue Olympian sky

We’re living our romantic lie

Imagining harmony

In a world of insanity.

These days you’re one or the other

Cynical or naïve,

Rejecting both illusions

Taking up my pen to write

I seek ironic points of light.


When fireworks blaze over the city

Illuminating the sky

In red and gold and white

I’ll rush out to my balcony

To witness the splendid sight

And bending double with laughter

I’ll shout to the heavens my name

And hope that some poor bastard

Will go and do the same

And in desperate consolation

Show an affirming flame.

August 2008

With thanks to W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939

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