When I was in my early teens, having gorged on football annuals, my dad’s Wisden collection, biographies of old cricketers and pap fiction by the likes of James Herbert, the first ‘proper’ books I read were the early, Nottingham-based novels and short stories of Alan Sillitoe: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and Key to the Door; and, later, even the weird dystopia of Travels in Nihilon (in which national service in the armed forces is compulsory not for the young and fit, but, instead, for senior citizens, who, by virtue of their age, are judged to be expendable). From Sillitoe, I progressed to other Kitchen Sink-ers like John Braine before my brother happily got me to read On the Road and the rest of Kerouac’s oeuvre, and then I went on to read, among others, the greatest Notts. writer, D.H. Lawrence, Malcolm Lowry, Milan Kundera, Brian Moore, etc. (Sadly, the gender stereotyping of those days meant that I read few women writers until I went to university and very merrily worked my way through the goodies in the library.)
Anyhow, I instantly took a liking to Sillitoe’s pithy prose and pithier dialogue, wrought in a dialect sharply removed from my soft, southern Estuary-English attuned ears – his characters were always saying “allus” and such like. Here was a writer who dealt in the lives of those whom the Murdoch press and government ministers lamentably now label as ‘ordinary working people’, and who did so without gloss; even tackling – in his fine story ‘The Match’ – football and domestic violence.
For me, then, reading Kathy Pimlott’s well-produced Emma Press pamphlet from last year, Goose Fair Night, is a return of sorts to the pleasure I gained from ‘hearing’ Sillitoe’s rich Nottingham voice. Though Pimlott has been resident in the heart of London’s West End for many years, the majority of the pamphlet’s 22 poems take their cue from her upbringing in the East Midlands. The opening poem, ‘You Bring Out the Nottingham in Me’, from which the pamphlet’s title derives, nicely sets the tone. It can’t have been easy for Pimlott to decide which place-names, memories and other details to include in the poem and which to omit; yet the finished poem is a warm-hearted and funny paean to how the city’s annual Goose Fair used to be:
My scent is Dangerous October, hot engine oil,
hot sugar, Mouse Town must. In electric dark
beyond the caravans, I take on all just
for the glory and floor them tenderly to rock ‘n’ roll,
chain and lever growl and lovely screams.
References to Ned Ludd, Lawrence and, of course, Brian Clough (‘With you I’m Clough-strut right’) round off a poem that, though set long ago, is full of life and pride. The pamphlet is threaded with six affectionate and excellent poems concerning Pimlott’s maternal grandmother, Enid. All six cover aspects of Enid’s character and life, including working in service, her childhood as the eldest of nine, courtship by and marriage to a ‘dapper six-foot blonde’ who ‘turned cocky, a strutting nasty drunk’, and her role as grandmotherly dispenser of sound, experience-based and occasionally idiosyncratic advice, veering from how to eat a lollipop to how to avoid abduction and worse. Enid’s common sense approach – depicted from the outset, in the first of the six, ‘Enid and the Peas’ (‘[. . . ] don’t prong them individually. / You use your knife to squash them to your fork’) – and her ability to retain and recount old memories are endearing. The spacing of these poems at intervals allows the reader, after the first of them, to encounter Enid as an old friend; a force of nature rendered skilfully and believably by Pimlott:
The grown-ups will
be lively, drunk and playing Peggy Lee,
while upstairs, we’ll have the story
of your dash with a bowl on pig-killing day,
of how you fainted under the cane.
You tell me about bombed bodies
stacked in the swimming baths,
your mam’s red hair, long enough
to sit on, how the doctor made her
cut it off to cure her headaches.
(from ‘Enid and Me’)
The accretion of detail in Enid’s litany of memories adds up to far more than just poetry-as-life-writing because it presents in the spotlight a portrait of an unsung working-class woman; and in a time where more than a few poets seem compelled to devote much of their energy to writing fact- and post-fact-stuffed Wiki-poems about ‘celebs’, it’s refreshing to read clear, unembellished poetry about people whose lives are less commonly written about in anything other than patronising tones. In this poem, as elsewhere in the pamphlet, Pimlott’s deployment of verb tenses bestows a sense of timelessness: firstly, through the future tense, as if the scene is about to be played in accordance with habit, and then via the shift to the present tense.
In other poems, Pimlott tackles a delightful miscellany of themes: female lives and female friendship and solidarity in particular – both objectively (in ‘Soho Hens’, with its gorgeous observation of ‘They jostle like a silvery balloon / bouquet tethered to a jittery child’, and in ‘Apprentice Cutter’) and subjectively (in ‘Out with the Girls’, with its comical pathos of ‘No one sits next to us. // Perhaps they think we will unwrap / egg sandwiches’); the pleasures of a childhood holiday in Cornwall; a day out in Brighton; the mysteries of jam-making (‘A bluebottle, cruising the cavity, left off its hum to liquefy and lay / and in no time at all blind maggots / fell from the architrave into the sink’ – from ‘Preserving’); and much else.
In her lively and perceptive introduction, Clare Pollard rightly highlights Pimlott’s “female working-class sensibility” and “the unremarkable, in-between places that she illuminates with her attention”, but what’s perhaps most impressive is that Pimlott seems to know instinctively how much information to impart and, crucially, how to impart it. As I alluded to earlier, Pimlott doesn’t ‘poeticize’ her poems and is wisely content to let her extraordinary stories and observations unfold in a concise, mostly judgement-free narrative voice. Likewise, Pimlott sticks to fairly safe forms – mostly stanzaic or block poems, with the odd unrhymed sonnet and an eight-couplet poem which indicates the influence of Mimi Khalvati. Pimlott only extends her range in the central poem, ‘All the Way Here’, a sequence of six tightly-crafted sketches of place, in both Nottingham and London; but it doesn’t really matter, as the pamphlet possesses a very pleasing unity, in which the poems, none of which is less than good, cohere to make a memorable and highly enjoyable debut. Here’s hoping a full collection will be hot on its heels.