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….
Back in 2010 I started off with the title Track for a multimedia M.A. that finally did not happen. However the seeds of some kind of project centred around the impact of the railway on the movement of people and ideas started then. This is now bearing fruit as a double project centred on my local history research in two cities close to my heart.
So now we have…
based around the recent Lost Nottingham poetry project and
Based around the concept of Backwaters and Branch Lines
Maybe two separate collections or two bound together in one ‘TRACK’ volume.
Last year I did a reading for Nottingham Poetry Festival in which I produced a small ‘polemical’ pamphlet called ‘Burning Books’.
The pamphlet was a one off and most of the poems after ‘outing’ in paper form were then hidden away as ‘too political’ for my readers by myself! I censored myself which crazy but shows the agonies of being in any way ‘political’ or writing from a stridently working-class viewpoint in the contemporary middle-class ring-fenced world of ‘proper poetry’.
It only now and post Kit de Waal’s article in the Guardian that I realise that in doing so I hiding from my true self.
So here again is the ‘real’ ‘Burning Books’ pre-edit and I stand by these poems…..a lot of pretentious middle-class ‘poets’ will hate it but frankly as I don’t spend much time listening to their whinging I don’t care. I will be ‘re-categorised’ as a ‘performance poet’ I expect and described as having a ‘chip on my shoulder’ which a frequent method of negating anything which threatens the middle class.
The following was written as a comment on facebook about the Tim Lott article on the Guardian published this week. This sparked some interesting comments on the notion and as Lott specifically flags up Sillitoe and this now a City of Literature I thought it might be worth expanding on.
The comments are more revealing than the article. I was born on a farm and moved to a council estate (lucky enough after sleeping on floors my family were rehoused) in 1966. I have always seen myself as working class and have written about it. I don’t think you lose that and I am not any less working class now than I was then. I do however from the age of 17 have many instances where I was told I was ‘rough’, uncultured, brash, awkward, not nice..by middle class people when it suited them. This usually occurred when I stood up on principal to being labelled or demeaned because of my background. I would be famous now if middle class because I would have learnt to keep my mouth shut and ‘do the right thing’. I never have and I never will and it has cost me jobs (the latest a case in point even academia is rife with classism) and affected my artistic production but it has never stopped me and never will. As my father said if a job’s worth doing it is worth doing well. I worked 8 years as a ‘minion’ (their words) at Oxford University in the same Colleges and system as Jeanette Winterson et al attended…..I could not be seen let alone heard during that time and that why I in Nottingham. If I stayed in Oxford I would be dead..literally.
There are some strange reactions in the comments including some vituperative remarks about Sillitoe himself which seem worth mentioning. He did in fact spend most of his life living in London but I don’t think that precludes him writing about the working class he came from. It would be like someone telling me I cannot write about Oxfordshire. More cutting was the accusation of demeaning the Radford area and its folk as villains which as I worked on Radford Road isn’t as far from the truth as it should be. In fact that road is statistically one of the highest reported crime areas in the country due to a high turn over of dwellers, students and a drug problem that has never gone away. Again attacking Sillitoe seems to be shooting the messenger and not addressing the problem something Nottingham good at.
Stanley Middleton isn’t mentioned which a shame as he probably wrote about the suburban aspirations of ‘decent folk’ ( i.e. people who work rather than the ‘working class’) just as well and lived all his life here but does that make him a better writer? As for modern day writers in Nottingham addressing ‘working class’ values it hard to say. David Belbin and John Harvey both address working-class story-lines but does that make their work ‘working class’ or them for that matter? Further more does it matter? Michael Eaton and Stephen Lowe both address working class subjects but I would never describe either as working class. As my dad would have said they wouldn’t know one end of a shovel from the other. Rosie Garner is definitely working class and lived all her life in Bestwood so I guess she would be happy with the label. Mulletproof Poet addresses his upbringing directly in his writing but aligns himself with The Sleaford Mods as much as Sillitoe. Nicola Monaghan in her original format ( she has since re-booted as a Horror Story/Thriller novelist Nikki Valentine but that another story) used working class to brand her first novel The Killing jar very successfully but having explored the hell of her estate upbringing (allegedly …I remain unconvinced there wasn’t a fair amount of decorative drugginess added to spice up the tale) she has not pushed that particular angle since. As an academic lecturer ( therefore now middle class according to some people’s logic) she now may find that to do so brings accusations of hypocrisy as many suggested in commenting on Lott’s original piece. To succeed then is to betray your background? That unjust in my opinion but unless a working class writer remains in poverty how do they avoid that catch 22. I am unemployed technically now but it not the same as being a 17 year old with no prospects. I am comfortable for the time being and can survive. Can I then say I still working class?
Which brings us to Nottingham’s most famous son..the rose with thorns. D.H.Lawrence. Definitely from the working class in Eastwood but hell bent on putting as much distance between himself and this ‘provincial’ city as he could. Never did any manual labour but wrote about it beautifully. Leant heavily towards right wing and fascist ideas after marrying into the Richtofen family. Treated badly certainly but no worse than others suspected of German allegiance and ended up a virtual exile because of it. A working class writer. Yes. A fascist. Yes. Uncomfortable truths abound. I do not buy into the ‘he was misunderstood’ approach. When he wrote his eulogy to Hitler he knew what he doing. A Moseleyite through and through.
WORKING CLASS HERO?
Can one be a truly ‘working class’ writer then? My opinion is yes one can.
Even in writing that line I baulked at using ‘one’ it reminds me of Oxford.
We carry our childhoods with us and we never lose them. they form our core values and our outlooks. I will never vote Conservative. I will never support fox-hunting. I do not like right wing people and neither did my family. My parents bought their council house off Thatcher because it was a good deal …did that make them any less working class? The estate I grew up on is unrecognisable now and a dormitory suburb for London with high prices and no community. That was part of the Thatcherite policy to enable purchase, profiteering and movement. Slum landlords have divided the small council houses into multiple occupation flats. The working class are still there but speak many languages, have no organisation to speak for them, and work horrendous shifts to pay sky-high rents for cramped rooms. That is what working class writing should tackle now. It is below the radar of old notions of working and class and some working class people are actively exploiting that underclass. Again an unfortunate truth.The exploitation of land and capital continues by whatever means allowed.
The white working class communal world I grew up in has been smashed but it does not mean I cannot write about it or posit it as an alternative to what we have now. That is not naive lefty fantasy – that is fact. That certain middle-class writers would rather avoid that unwelcome truth says more about the state of Britain now than what existed then. Sitting around in book groups reading Hilary Mantel and eating cake is very nice for the idle rich but how many question how or where their nice cheap Amazon paperbacks are printed or who actually prepared and served that delicious cake? Many hands hold up our middle and working-class lifestyles now. We are all beneficiaries of our comfortable western capitalism..all of them unseen hands….in foreign parts mostly. Cheap labour and exploitation is at the heart of all capitalist processes. Forget that and you have forgotten you are working class. Hands define manual labour. Hands also write. Some writers only know writing and have never encountered the other.
My definition of a ‘working class’ writer is anybody who has experience of both. Working and writing. These days the literary world is clogged up with people who know only one and lecture those who have experience of the other endlessly…
Tim Lott has ‘soft hands’ as my Dad would say….they be manager’s hands.
Released into the wild today as a downloadable pdf. The first of an irregular series of pdf pamphlets released as and when i feel like it.
Basically a resume and calling card showing the fairly small output of the last 15 years and hopefully leading to more poems in the future. I have already started on a sequence for the ‘Backwater’ volume so thought I had better clear this one up for once and all.
Here the Bio blurb so you get the picture..all offers of Penury Fighting to me asap 🙂
The Drifting Village – Press blurb stuff…
Shaun Belcher was born Oxford, England in 1959 and brought up on a down-land farm before moving to the small town of Didcot, near Oxford, England in 1966. He studied fine art at Hornsey College of Art, London from 1979–81. He began writing poetry in the 1980s and has subsequently been published in a number of small magazines and a poem used at title of the Shore Poets Anthology ‘The Ice Horses’ (Scottish Cultural Press 1996). A selection of poems was published as ‘Last Farmer’ in the Salt Modern Voices Series in 2010.
He now lives in Nottingham, England after two years in Edinburgh studying folk culture and several years in the city of expiring dreams otherwise known as Oxford.
He is currently working on a new volume of poems as part of a multidisciplinary art project called ‘Backwater’.
He has been involved in various literary projects including delivering creative writing workshops in Nottingham prison for the ‘Inside Out’ project and is a member of Nottingham Writer’s Studio.
After several years as an academic art lecturer he has returned to writing alongside his other artistic practices as this the fastest way to achieve total penury he knows.
Part of my new found ‘freedom’ is the ability to find bargains ( both cost me 50p which at 25p each makes it the cheapest pair of books I bought all week) and secondly having the time to actually read the damn things…
So not only are they like buses but I have read both ..the novel yesterday and the poems today although I did not read every poem to the end. I have not read anything else by Haddon which not surprising as he published oodles of kids books and just three ‘adult’ novels including this one…which more a crossover all ages job.
First impressions? Well very cleanly written and pacy as you would expect from a children’s writer. A couple of token f-words and one c word to I suppose tick the ‘adult’ box. The story is fairly innocuous ( will not spoil it ) but the dog stays dead. The interweaving of Conan Doyle and what seems like a Brian Cox series on the galaxies is deftly handled and the illustrations are amusing. As I am not a mathematician I did not check the sums at the end but the Aspergers trait of having to have it as an addendum was a nice touch as was the list of various locations ..Sunderland, Caracas, Swindon etc from throughout the novel a ice touch towards the end.
I enjoyed it but on reflection it did feel a bit like an exercise that pretty much wrote itself once the prescription written. It also felt like it owed a lot to Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole too……only with more facts. Whether it totally accurate re. Aspergers I not sure. It certainly reminded me of high end autism that I have worked with so giving the benefit of the doubt there.
It seems churlish but there were some bits I not so happy about although name-checking my home town as Didcot Parkway was a nice touch and puts Haddon in a small club of writers who have mentioned Didcot in their writing..which includes myself, Amy Clampitt, Marina Warner and Javier Marias..I kid you not…
( It is also 17 minutes on a Great Western 125 from Swindon to Didcot so full marks for accurate train spotting there Mr Haddon although I doubt you spent your weekends trainspotting on Didcot platform like me your family were probably in the Algarve.)
No what I felt a little uneasy with was the characterisation of the ‘adults’ i.e. they haven’t got any..character that is. The token ‘working-class’ father routine and ‘smelling’ was a little hard to believe. I was right.
A swift trawl of web soon established that Mr. Haddon has an MA in English Literature from Merton Oxford ( That means he got a B.A. they give you an MA automatically because they reckon it equivalent of other Unis BAs ..yeah bollocks) and previously at Uppingham Public School..so his experience of work probably from a bus window….like fellow Uppingham alumni like Stephen Fry , Rick Stein and Johhny Vaughan..a toff who also adopted the vowels of the poor for broadcasting…. we not talking heavy labour here. A smart move in career terms though for both.
So he is erudite, smart and lives in Oxford in a nice big house with his wife who a Fellow which in Oxford means silver spoon waiting ( I know I served there). In other words he hasn’t got a care in the world.
The novel is ok but the poetry is pitiful….a poor man’s Armitage. The Oxonian/Uppingham man comes to the fore so his first (and so far last) poetry tome includes various references to Greek Gods and Horace…as well as some utter bollocks disguised as prose poetry which gives Armitage’s recent explorations a run for its money in terms of lightweight and fatuous.
Sorry but if Poetry Review published this then it must have been because he so jolly nice and knew someone. It would not have been published in the real world but then Oxbridge publishing isn’t the real world. Their recent appointment as Professor of Poetry proves that.
So having trashed the poems what about the kid’s stuff..probably great..for kids…end of.
After this experience I have been reading C.K.Williams for some adult entertainment.
I have not posted in this writing blog for a while due to a full-time commitment to painting in preparation for the Lady Bay Arts show in West Bridgford on the weekend of 16th and 17th May.
The actual physical act of painting has made me look at my writing ‘block’ in a different way and also with the benefit of hindsight my writing ‘career’ post M.A. in Creative Writing. ‘Doing’ rather than ‘thinking about doing’ which my writing has been sabotaged by has become a useful tool. I painting again because ignoring theory and influences and simply engaging directly in practice as Picasso says:
“I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”
I am only able to paint like I am now because of time off on career break and I made the right decision in leaving writing behind for a while. At this point in my life and with seven years teaching in an art school and an MA in Fine Art recently completed my head was always in a ‘art’ place. Trying to drop all that and go down a writing MA route was a mistake but one I had to make to lay at least two ghosts.
1. My possible grandfather. If nothing else the MA course laid to rest that particular ghost. I feel free of that burden now. Having ‘revealed’ it I actually made it less not more important.
2. I have to ‘do’ a MA in Creative Writing to be a writer…complete tosh but sadly a attitude that all to prevalent in this city. I have met many people claiming to be writers with MAs and many without. In both cases I’d say about 10% are actually writers….about same quota goes for the rest of the arts. Postgraduate arts academic qualifications are mostly for people who want to impress their friends and a small percentage of students who want to work in academia.
So post ‘academic writing’ which is I reckon totally shot now what shall I do…
Good question I no idea…answers on a postcard please.
The only thing for certain is I will want to do it… if and when it starts again.
It could be songwriting, poetry…historical research..or music reviewing again which I always enjoyed.
As they say watch this space..literally all writing news will be posted here.
As Harland Howard said when songs rejected for the umpteenth time..
‘Always smile, shake their hands and walk away’…..:-)
Now I have always had a problem with being a ‘poet’.
I come from a straightforward working class council estate background and the only thing worse than being a poet there was becoming a ‘fine artist’ so I killed two birds in one bush there then with my double non-career. I remember digging up a Xmas Tree with my dad in my 30s and a farmer asked my dad what I did to which he replied ‘artist’. The farmer replied ‘Oh Aye they’re all dead or gay aren’t they’ which just about sums it all up….my dad said nowt….just dug up the tree.
So forgetting that I wasn’ t meant to be a poet but a bricklayer (my dad never got over that) I was introduced to poetry at my fine art course under ‘complementary studies’ and bought my first poetry books (Heaney and Hughes Faber paperbacks). I even witnessed a living poet when Adrian Henri came to give a talk, which was unforgettable, as we decamped from Alexandra Palace art school to the park outside and much wine was drunk.
A seed had been planted and suffering from London withdrawal symptoms and no job in 1982 I was back home and visited my local library. I came across the Donald Hall American Poetry anthology and another book with William Carlos Williams in and that was that I was hooked. What is more with no money and no studio making art was far away and here was something I could ‘have a go at’ with a pencil.
I then wrote poetry off and on until 2000 (most intensely in the years with no art studio) and then again briefly in 2006-7 which was the three poems published in Staple. However having finally put my art archive online I have realised that, a bit like songwriting, poetry filled in a gap when I not creating art which from Foundation Course in 1977 onwards until 1990 had been my main focus.
Which brings me to now and all that happened since last September. The coincidence of my first ever paid poetry commission and starting the Creative Writing M.A. was dysfunctionally apt….I immediately concentrated on the commission and I think did quite well in fulfilling that brief and promptly screwed up the M.A.
Well I say screwed up , other parties gave me a more than helping hand (not at Clifton nor anything to do with CW I may add) which may come out in due course depending on the probability of a lawsuit ensuing.
So here I am 56 years old. One small pamphlet to my name through Salt and wondering whether to carry on writing poetry. A strange place to be. I am doing the right things. Attending the writer’s studio poetry monthly session, Stanza meetings (last one excellent) and seeing live poets at Jazz and Poetry (D.A.Prince and Tony Roberts both excellent) and Totally Wired evenings (more for the student crowd but equally good readers).
But…….my mind at the moment firmly fixed on painting again for the first time in a very long time. What is more one of the reasons I gave up on CW M.A. was the feeling that the time off until June should be used in my studio whilst I have one. Too many times in my life I have not had the space to work in as a fine artist. For once I have chosen to use it whilst it there. Then the same day as I start drawing I write a poem….DOH. Not a poem in the way I have written before and whatever poetry I might write in the future will not be like the past.
The poet I was is buried along with the Salt pamphlet in my mother’s grave. I cannot go back. I cannot write like that any more.
The times they have changed. Whatever comes next is starting in the Iggy Pop poem below. I no idea if it will last this time. Maybe all along it was just a substitute for another art form..we’ll see 🙂
The images just a bit of my inner Mod coming out 😉
For a poetry workshop tonight I have selected four poems from across ‘Rhymin Simon’s’ illustrious career to see if Stannard was just a sour-puss and lo and behold this is what I found.
THE TYRE (from Cloudcookooland 1997)
A poem from his middle period I guess. Displays the usual ‘prosaic’ subject matter in first stanza, skips to ‘what might happen’ in stanza 2 and then drifts off into transcendental hogwash in the third stanza although I am sure there are readers who find it sublime. I don’t.
In fact I find the whole thing confected and unbelievable. He has obviously never done a labouring job or worked on a farm because his ‘tyre’ is made up. No farmer would leave an expensive bit of kit like that lying around and secondly it would if containing water be too heavy to lift. Anybody who close to the land would know that. Further there is no ‘real’ location nor identifiable others..in other words it fiction.
No this is a typical Armitage confection. Take an object and build a’narrative’ around it (like the penny.etc etc). This fitted in well with the Glyn Maxwell school of narrative poems that Poetry Review editor Peter Forbes (New Generation maestro and who put them both on the cover -see above) was engineering. Back in the late 1980s he came to a workshop I attended in Islington raving about Maxwell, himself and Byron as all parts of the new longer poem movement…Armitage fitted in well and indeed pretended to be Auden to Maxwell’s Isherwood.
Now this is where things get interesting. If one takes the poem and simply let the sense determine line-break we find a far shorter and far more conventional poem ‘chopped’ into a longer form. Stannard is spot on Armitage is obsessively iambic and 10 syllable to line then plods duly on. Here the original and my edited version.
Just how it came to rest where it rested,
miles out, miles from the last farmhouse even,
was a fair question. Dropped by hurricane
or aeroplane perhaps for some reason,
put down as a cairn or marker, then lost.
Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin
nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots,
it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump,
to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
We bullied it over the moor, drove it,
pushed from the back or turned it from the side,
unspooling a thread in the shape and form
of its tread, in its length, and in its line,
rolled its weight through broken walls, felt the shock
when it met with stones, guided its sleepwalk
down to meadows, fields, onto level ground.
There and then we were one connected thing,
five of us, all hands steering a tall ship
or one hand fingering a coin or ring.
Just how it came to rest where it rested, miles out, miles from the last farmhouse even,
was a fair question. Dropped by hurricane or aeroplane perhaps for some reason,
put down as a cairn or marker, then lost. Tractor-size, six or seven feet across,
it was sloughed, unconscious, warm to the touch,
its gashed, rhinoceros, sea-lion skin nursing a gallon of rain in its gut.
Lashed to the planet with grasses and roots, it had to be cut. Stood up it was drunk
or slugged, wanted nothing more than to slump, to spiral back to its circle of sleep,
dream another year in its nest of peat.
We bullied it over the moor, drove it, pushed from the back or turned it from the side,
unspooling a thread in the shape and form of its tread, in its length, and in its line,
rolled its weight through broken walls, felt the shock when it met with stones, guided its sleepwalk down to meadows, fields, onto level ground. There and then we were one connected thing,
five of us, all hands steering a tall ship or one hand fingering a coin or ring.
It is a very dull iambic pentameter with very basic rhymes nothing more…and I think he got it from Auden…..it is ‘As I walked out one evening’…ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum.
I have tried this with all four poems and it works on all.
He seems incapable of avoiding this constant beat…or using any other register.
Most worryingly even the mock Sonnets of Book of Matches which so beloved of our schools worksheeting teachers has exactly the same plodding inevitability. He himself did not claim they sonnets they just aped the 14 line length BUT…..they have nothing of a true sonnet about them at all…Wyatt would turn in his grave..there no subtlety here at all..Professor of Poetry? What for?
This is what the poem ‘POEM’ actually made of…..
Ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum ba de dum….
when he cannot find a full rhyme a half rhyme will do it seems……
And if it snowed and snow covered the drive he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night And slippered her the one time that she lied.
And every week he tipped up half his wage. And what he didn't spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.
And for his mum he hired a private nurse.And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.
Here's how they rated him when they looked back: sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.
Once you hear this dull rhythm it hard to get out of one’s mind which I think why Stone Stanzas so successful. Because he was working with a shorter line and one which had to be sculpted in stone which he could not drag on ad nauseum he had to change rhythm perhaps for the first time and break the Armitage Stomp….
From Stone Stanzas
The sky has delivered
its blank missive.
The moor in coma.
Snow, like water asleep,
a coded muteness
to baffle all noise,
to stall movement,
After testing his theory I can wholeheartedly agree with Martin Stannard that we have a leaden fairly unimaginative Poet Laureate elect on our hands but how he got to be in that position is far more about poetry and politics than any fault of the man himself.
He is a good performer, a very good and media savvy spokesman for poetry but as a poet…he just isn’t that good in my opinion and I think Stannard amidst the rancour has finally found him out which is what good criticism does it makes you look again.