He needed to talk to someone. It happened to be us. His rolled tobacco slipped from his fingers as he went over events fifty years before. The harbour, Singapore, thunder circling and lightning flashing across the sea. A merchant navy man, sitting on deck with his mates, watching a free show. ’lf they’s could only ’arness that energy’.
The same bar two hours later. Someone else who wanted to talk but blocked by E’s, drunk, it came in staccato bursts, the sense, mouthed through a vocabulary borrowed from rap, rave and T.V. Eighteen, jobless, staring through glass at a wet car park, he rocks gently like a ship stuck in harbour.
Improbable squares, steel-framed frogs hopping from aerodrome to aerodrome through an emulsion sky, wool clouds. You could hear them from miles away before they’d flash over the barn and into my wide open six-year old eyes.
Other times they dissolved through the outhouse plastic corrugated roof into distorted birds that rattled like boxes as they headed south travelling so low and slow as if weighted down by air.
Sometimes two would appear together flickering through the tall roses as I clung to the wooden fence head hung back, off balance. l tried to read the letters and numbers painted on the dull grey fuselage.
I imagined them picking up our house. Slotting the wooden walls, corrugated plastic, roof slates and felt, windows, my mother washing clothes in clouds of steam, even our spaniel and me and spinning us all into whiteness.
My first six years I lived in a wooden clapboard house on top of a hill near Wittenham Clumps. We were under the flight-path of Benson aerodrome which is why these aircraft had a profound affect on me.
Below and to my right from this window a Volvo lorry crunches gear shredded leaf, dust and gravel trickles from bumper and wheel-arch. The digging of the new pool has been going on now for two weeks. Yellow digger-buckets mouth the park’s soil and turf into lorries that rumble off, indicators flashing, down dusty A-roads to tip their loads as land-fill or as embankment on the new trunk road.
I used to swim badly across the old pool that’s been demolished splashing a clumsy trail from three to six-foot but no further. Now a JCB arm is swinging deeper than the best then could dive clanking engines and carbon fumes replacing yells and splutters. Pale teenagers, we swarmed round a tin and hardboard kiosk where we’d buy ice-cream speared with flakes every summer.
Now sub-contractors, mis-managers and bankrupts delay completion. Keep us waiting for a false vision of the sea in middle England. Meanwhile every other council-painted door has a fresh veneer and satellite-dishes mark the newly affluent from the newly poor. Communal flats have been knocked down, replaced by home ownership whilst the council chambers echoed to ’private sector linkage’.
Down the road kids clutch change that grows sweaty and sticky as the division between white and blue collars frays at the edges. The water is milky like a disinfectant bath, ice-cream melting. Every Friday my school class fizzed in that copper sulphate pool. Some from that class dived into the eighties, came out with coins but others still stumble round the wire slaked in mud and urine.
From Landmine Poems 1992-1996
This is an old poem that was never published it was too political, too edgy, too working class in the early 1990’s. To fit into a poetry world dominated by the white middle-class in those days took a certain amount of camouflaging.. some blended in well like Armitage always cloaking their politics ( after all he was a probation officer when I met him hardly a radical occupation).
I resigned myself to being an outlier in poetry then and frankly little changed…This poem was about the slow spread of corruption that started with the council house sell-off…..land-owning became a badge of the new right. It mattered not that many got left behind or that the environment was trashed as long as the showers of gold trickled down to.. well the gutter.
I stole Mr Parr’s photo he will not mind he owes me one for a favour I did later and it the perfect image of a country on brink of selling its soul.
We all went diving for change in broken fountains….
You lying exhausted in another room, me taping, trying to drag some of the past with me. Three stories up in West London I think of old friends, forgotten journeys and the cracked ceiling reminds me of ice and cars swish beyond the stained curtains.
You say I never talk, never explain things clam-up, freeze-up, a tight-lipped Englishman. You should have tried talking to my father and his step-father, stood in a field mid-winter. Tried catching a word as snow blurred the hills and kept the rooks clinging to the high trees.
Cold as winter cattle, boots white with frost they’d say nothing, just stamp chilblained feet and whistle the dog back to the track they knew lay under six inches of fresh snow. Their maps were in their heads. Now I clear mine and stumble on the edge of a new path.
Forgive me my sullen silences, my outbursts at years of missed chances, frustrations, laziness. Tonight there is no spate water froze across meadows, no fields buried under six foot drifts, yet I can feel the words tugging at me wanting to arc a white half-acre unleased.
Another poem from my back pages. London 1992.
From an overall collection called Landmine Poems 1992-1996
No not a reference to Sergeant Pepper that was 20 but out of curiosity here an unseen poem from 1991. Ah, but I was so much older then I’m younger than that now..
Soho doorway, December ’66 sleet melting on daisy-patterned plastic raincoat, seeping to salt lines up purple suede slip-ons Her front teeth bite her bottom lip as she shivers, flicks her fringe, and waits for a Mini-Cooper S to arrive in a spray of slush, Boutique lights flash in chrome wheels splattered with ice, laced with tinsel.
Saturday morning, December ’86 she stands outside her mum’s semi as her hubby shifts furniture out. Cascades of bills, snaps, cards fall from a draw into the dustbin. Then a photo of her at 17 surfaces from the layers of 20 years. Bobbed hair, raincoat against chequers, she is staring, unwed into space as flecks of snow speck the black lid.
July 1991 I had just completed an interesting but fruitless temporary post at The Poetry Library on the South Bank through 1990 and had my poems and songs illustrated by my sadly deceased friend Laura Stenhouse at St. Martin’s College of Art in the old building on Charing Cross Road.
My brief tenure as a photocopying assistant and customer service adviser (weekends only) didn’t do much for me financially as I travelled up from Didcot for several months but it did introduce me to poetry and poets which I had dabbled with in a thoroughly modernist way since discovering William Carlos Williams in my early twenties.
In six short months in 1990 I met( and served) a whole gaggle of new generation poets ( Dooley, Shapcott, Greenlaw, Donaghy all great and one Maxwell who was a rude prick) and also met some greats like Ivor Cutler, Bob Cobbing ( who equalled Maxwell for rudeness showing that manners and avant-garde no guarantor) as well as seeing a whole host of great readings.. C.K. Williams, William Trevor and best of all Raymond Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher.
Thus inspired I self-produced a small poetry pamphlet ‘Towns on Shallow Hills’ which I remember Ivor Cutler reading but not buying on account as he said he had read it…said pamphlet I sold to various friends and poets ( I still have a list) and I am pleased to say still in the National Poetry Library collection. See HERE.
It didn’t launch me into contention as a new generation poet that honour had been carved out almost exclusively for acolytes of the Poetry Review editor Peter Forbes who I had the misfortune to hear read one of his dull longer form poems out once and who was an arrogant SOB who virtually controlled poetry in those days. He loved Maxwell which figures ..birds of a feather etc.
Remember in those days Oxbridge white middle class was a defining factor and only Simon Armitage broke through that and that lead to some tokenism in the New Gen list but overall the power base remained intact which not good for a politically orientated writer like myself. That Oxbridge dominance is still true to a high degree. If you want a current assessment of political make up of the poetry audience go see David Coates research here https://davepoems.wordpress.com which overly academic but is telling.
I myself come into the category of his category of cishet white men which ironic considering he neatly leaves out the ‘middle class’ bit of that definition which handy as if as he is you from Northern Ireland studying a PhD on Macneice you pretty much tick all the boxes of those you attacking…..but at least he trying to flag up the inequalities for which I have to say well done.
The poems published in the pamphlet were pretty hastily written but I left the Library confident that I as good as the above mentioned careerist poets (not knowing a thing about careerism) and wrote some much better stuff which through 1991-2 I started submitting to journals and lo and behold started to be published. I was pretty much unemployed and broke all the time so it lead nowhere. I did some unpaid reviewing for the Arts Council met a lot of people who supportive but too busy providing themselves with opportunities and funding and ended up meeting a lovely Spanish woman and buggering off to Edinburgh where I continued and flourished as a poet.
Today is pretty much 30 years to the day since I received my first publication letter from John Harvey at Slowdancer Magazine ironically based then in Nottingham. I still have a copy. This in retrospect was the high point of my poetry career until the retrospective ‘greatest hits’ pamphlet Last Farmer from Salt in 2010.
So 30 years on I starting to look at the poetry world again. A lot of the magazines and editors who published me have disappeared or simply died. Some I happy to see like The Frogmore Papers still going and poets who supported me in Edinburgh like Stewart Conn still alive which amazing. I do not know what kind of poetry I will write or if there even a poetry world that cares in a era of selfie PR and diversity tick boxing. Even the working class ticket has been abused and moulded to generate support and funding. It is a more visual, less middle class landscape but the powerful still lead at Faber and Faber , cape etc. It reminds me of a late Larkin poem about a mind folding under snow ..it feels a chilly climate to walk out into poetry land…..
In 1986 or thereabout I bought the Carver stories above from a shop in Plymouth whilst visiting my sister. It was the start of my obsession with all things ‘Americana’. I moved on via Granta’s Dirty Realism collection to a whole series of American authors including Lorrie Moore, Bobbie Anne Mason and then backwards towards the Deep South ( a title of a Paul Binding book I still own). Along the way stopping off in a whole number of places revealed to me by these authors. My mental map of USA is formed by them as I have only actually been there once for three days for a conference in New York City.
The subject in a lot of cases were outsiders, renegades..working class trailer trash. The characters who in the last few days have stepped out of ‘wilderness’ America and into all our front rooms as led on by the new Barnum they tried to occupy the centre-ground. The warriors of the marginalised wilds.
Trump’s misguided revolution is a drive-by shooting or a mall massacre on a huge scale. Every misfit and shamen of the dispossessed risen up like a biblical flood not forgetting the Jim Crow preachers and snake oil hucksters and medicin men waiting to profit from the carnage.
Watching this unfold like a sequal to a new series of Justified complete with guns, white supremacists and jingoistic cops leaves a hollow feeling…..
Art imitating life or the other way round?
The American Dream seems somehow tawdry and washed out right now….the idolisation of small town freaks and clowns somehow deeply compromised by their depiction.
There are many predictions of further unrest but frankly a United States Marine against spear carrying shaman is fanciful…..armed highly organised militia with military background far more realistic. Hopefully the above the sideshow to Barnum T’s assault on democracy but who knows what tigers he has in his circus cages or skeletons in the Pentagon…..the next few days will tell.
Hopefully it will be Trump’s Skeleton history stands in line to see not democracy’s….
Looking back at those difficult years now, do you feel that the silent stretches were detrimental to your work?
If I hadn’t been fighting battles on other fronts, I might have been scribbling boring middle-aged verse – like MacNeice who twittered on for a decade until the miraculous final poems. It seems that the Muse favours the young and then, if you can weather the middle stretch’, the pensioners. Silence is part of the enterprise. Most poets write and publish far too much. They forget the agricultural good sense of the fallow period. The Muse despises whingers who bellyache aboutwriter’s block’ and related ailments.
One of the best things ever said to me about poetry was John Hewitt’s off- hand remark: `If you write poetry, it’s your own fault.’
JODY ALLEN RANDOLPH – Michael Longley in Conversation
This interview is taken from PN Review 160, Volume 31 Number 2, November – December 2004.
I was relieved to see that I not the only middle-aged poet who had a fallow period. Until now I thought my future was more akin to a Larkinesque slump as he detailed in the majestic yet sad refrain on this late poem…
THE WINTER PALACE
by Philip Larkin
Most people know more as they get older: I give all that the cold shoulder.
I spent my second quarter-century Losing what I had learnt at university.
And refusing to take in what had happened since. Now I know none of the names in the public prints,
And am starting to give offence by forgetting faces And swearing I’ve never been in certain places.
It will be worth it, if in the end I manage To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.
Then there will be nothing I know. My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.
So maybe like Longley (still alive at 81!) the best is yet to come….or some is yet to come ….