CIPHERS ( ©Words and music by Paul F. Cowlan)

None of the examples cited in this song are imaginary. Communicating with the future continues to be a precarious business.


Scratched phases on a bone. Pressed stylus in the clay.
Carved letters on a stone. Scribbled paper thrown away.
Dead victories on a wall. Oak apple on a hide.
Beech wood. Silk scroll. Papyrus by the riverside.

A monk in a stone cell sees the sunlight fall.
Skins in a city hell spraying curses on a wall.
A trunk full of ‘Trader Horn’, lost in Venice, never found.
Gospels with their pages torn; heresies from underground.

Lovers in Pompei before the darkness came,
never saw the light of day, only left their names.
Books on a bonfire going up in holy smoke.
Secret poems of desire on a Chinese hunting cloak.

Ancient alphabets and drawings in the sand.
A coded manuscript that no-one understands.
Alexandria going up in flames, again and again and again.
It’s like a door that slams behind you, where time will never find you,
and there’s nothing to remind you but a cipher and a name.


Potter’s stamp on a bowl. Brick-mould with a sign.
Sigils on a scroll. Hieroglyphs in a line.
Secrets of the universe, all found all hid.
Lining for a book of verse, or a coffin lid.

Classics for a wine bung, or rubbish in the street.
Love songs unsung. Press the button to delete.
Discs full of knowledge, undeciphered, unread.
Obsolete technology, and the memory is dead.

Again it’s back to handprints in a cave; hematite and charcoal.
Something someone tried to save fifteen thousand years ago.
Scratched phases on a bone. Pressed stylus in the clay.

Carved figures on a stone. Scribbled paper thrown away.