Five Old-Fashioned Home-made Hats

Since the mid-1970s I have been a closet Slav. I learned all about Russia through human rights and travel books, mainly. In 2008 I got the opportunity to visit that huge troubled country. On my last day there I stumbled on a ‘babushka’ selling gaudy coloured, acrylic knitted hats.




A drab coat covered her plain pinafore,

her battered boots had seen better days

– unobtrusively, this old woman stood

on a St. Petersburg street corner,

silently holding up five crocheted hats.


She didn’t utter any plaintive, pleading pitch,

nor held any crude cardboard, Cyrillic sign,

advertising her five old-fashioned hats…

She showed no Soviet scowl,

nor naive hopeful smile:

– crushed by cruel Communism,

– pauperised by promising Perestroika

– conscripted into crony Capitalism…


No kindness offered from fellow citizens,

nor purchase made by this troubled tourist.

O, babushka! O, grandmother!

You waited on summer streets

offering gaudy-coloured hats for sale…



I entered the Spilt Blood Church

where heaven-haunted old icons

glowed gold, heaven-blue and blood-red,

depicting Byzantine biblical characters

who entreated us to remember eternity:

parables reprimanded the rich.


At the church shop, assistants refused

to change my large rouble note.

O, babushka! I bought an unwanted beer

to brake my note and buy from you

a baby hat that I certainly did not need.



O, babushka! I re-traced my journey

in the vain hope of making you smile.

O, babushka! Now apparently absent…

until suddenly, I spied your ghost

selling foil-wrapped garden flowers:

mere daisies, clovers and ferns.

I bought the second last bunch

and departed before change offered.


Again I spied your ghost, closing-up

a  well-travelled, stained suitcase,

filled with a blizzard of paper icons.

I prayed for you in pain, as I pressed

hope into your grubby-lined palm:

an act of inadequate atonement…



Who can I send to St. Petersburg?

Who can buy me five home-made hats?

Sing, minor-chord Orthodox mass-choirs!

O bell sequence riotously ring!

O gold-robed priest, let incense-censer swing!

Pained prayers ascend candle-lit icons.


O weeping widow – prostrate, praying

before the altar of the Everlasting

– do you now smile at the Saviour’s touch?

Are you succoured by His abundant care?

Did He open “heaven’s windows” for you?


Heaven’s windows” is a reference to Malachi 3: 10: ‘I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in….’

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