Writing the past (again)

Of late, my reading seems to have been stuck in an early-Twentieth Century time-warp: Ivor Gurney’s Collected Poems – his post-war war poems are undisputedly great, as well as others concerning his native Gloucestershire, especially during the two years 1920–22 immediately before his confinement in asylums, for the rest of his life; Helen Thomas’s beautiful and desperately sad memoirs of friendship, courtship and marriage to Edward, As it Was and World Without End; Edward’s poetry, a perennial favourite, so full of plein air existentialism before the word had even been coined; and HG Wells’s novels, The History of Mr Polly and Kipps. To an extent, I’ve been led back to such reading-matter by Glyn Maxwell’s incredibly good On Poetry, and his maxim, “You master form, you master time”, and his repeated insistence that line-breaks and stanza-breaks are forms of punctuation as vital as commas, full stops and the rest.

Consequently, my writing has been enriched, I think, by reading more carefully and more slowly; by not galloping through poems but taking more time to look properly at how black type imposes itself upon white space. I find it difficult to write about life today and worry that I’m simply a poet of memoir. Working my socks off in local government at a time of having to do far more with less funding and fewer resources means I get enough of contemporary life for most of my waking hours. Outside work, the impact of political callousness and uncertainty and the hideousness of Brexit inevitably drive me back into memory. But I’m not harking back to any golden age, because it’s obvious to everyone – except to the racists who are increasingly infecting our society again – that one never existed. It begs the question, though, of how one can write about the past without seeming that one is harking back somehow. The answer surely lies in doing so with affection where it is warranted and without any rosy-eyed sentiment when it evidently isn’t.

I’ve also volunteered myself as family archivist: I have boxes of documents, of family tree research undertaken by my paternal grandparents in the Fifties and Sixties, and amazing photo albums going back to late Victorian times. They are a trove of material. Of course, such materials trigger loads of questions which, to my constant sadness, it’s too late to ask.

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