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