Hidden Door
Ron Butlin

The Electric City of Heck

As you may know, our 2016 Electric City theme was inspired by former Edinburgh Makar Ron Butlin’s wonderful poem, “The Electric City of Heck”, from his collection The Magicians of Scotland (Polygon, 2014).

Following his stirring recital at our preview night, Ron went on to star in a utterly spellbinding collaboration with the Tinderbox Orchestra. Catch a brief glimpse of that magical moment in this video…

Ron has kindly agreed to let us publish the poem here for all to enjoy…

Cattle stumbling their way down to the shallows.

The water’s coolness rising

To meet them. Their hooves dry and hard

Against a clatter of loose stones etc. . . .

Having rusted not quite closed,

The sluice gate’s cast-iron lip runs

With several downward streaks

Of wet sunlight etc. . . .

Brushstrokes painted on a long-ago afternoon,

And erased –

The strands of current drift midstream,

Their several interlocking patterns describe . . .

Etc. etc. etc. . . .


Isn’t it time I trashed such childhood fancies?

After all, I live in the electric city

and the electric city lives in me.

My pulse is the traffic’s stop-and-go.

What I know of love and friendship naming

the only streets I care for.

So . . .?

How come I keep helter-skeltering back to – where?

And for what?

To give the supermarket checkout,

aisles and shelves a pastoral makeover –

smothering them in flowers, weeds

and a purple sway of willow herb?

Scythe down a field of business magnates,

bankers and politicians (row upon sleek row

baled and stacked, ready

to be recycled into something useful)?

Hardly. And yet . . .

Almost overnight, our city’s been digitised,

uploaded to an encrypted site / its inhabitants

given new user names,

new passwords.

Our histories deleted at a mouse-click,

everyone’s now making up the truth.

Beneath a touchscreen sky of low-watt

urban stars we continue our separate journeys

from the very centre of the universe

(where all our journeys start from, especially

the most personal).

We share nothing. The name for our loneliness

is self. We live for moments of recognition,

for brief communion.


Accelerating away from the Lockerbie bombing –

Staying a decade and more clear of the Twin Towers –

Keeping the next atrocity always

a few days ahead –

Gaza, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and all the rest

are parked in a layby for the time being

(with luck, a tow-truck might be

on its way).

Same road, same destination.

Still en route to where we’re making for –

you, me and the memories we rely on

like outdated maps . . .


Or else, should I return to that summer’s afternoon?

Rebrand it: The Electric City of Heck,


Upgrade its farm and half-dozen cottages (built mostly

from the rubble of nearby Lochmaben Castle).

Reformat it for 21st century into:

between Man and his God of choice

Then, if all else fails –

Taking the best of what we have and the best

of what we are, let’s reconfigure:

a streamlined rush of swifts that eat, sleep

and mate on the wing,

never touching the Earth from here

to Africa.

Not angels, but our guides into

a trackless future –

our guides, our inspiration.