On a haiku by Simon Chard

set fair the pop of the dubbin tin

The haiku above, one of the April contingent in The Haiku Calendar 2022, still very much worth buying from the incomparable Snapshot Press, here, has been talking to me for the past week and a half. Few haiku as short as this – just nine syllables – do as much work.

I picture the poet/protagonist, having consulted the weather forecast, down on his haunches to polish his faithful pair of sturdy black boots, for a walk into the countryside, maybe, or out to the coast.

The familiar sound as the tin-lid’s catch releases is immensely satisfying. Chard is as observant and excellent a haiku poet as anyone writing today, so he knows that the ‘pop’ needs no qualifying adjective, and his choice of the rather old-school ‘dubbin‘ is inspired.

It’s also pertinent to note that Chard didn’t write ‘set fair the dubbin tin’s pop’. His wording enables a double surprise: of the pop itself, and then that what causes the pop is something as apparently trivial as opening a tin of shoe polish.

Except that it isn’t trivial, and it shifts the focus: what we see is an act born of tradition; of someone with standards to maintain, standards no doubt instilled in him as a boy. The day is ‘set fair’, so boots need to be looking their best.

On leaving dos and public service

Last Friday, April Fool’s Day perhaps appropriately, marked thirty years to the day since I started working in local government. I joined Kingston Council all those years ago thinking that it would do me for a few months while I thought about what I really wanted to do with my life. I’ve moved local authorities a few times since then and returned; for 10 years now I’ve worked for both Kingston and Richmond. In 2014, also on 1st April, along with everyone else in children’s services in Kingston and Richmond, I TUPE-transferred out into our own new not-for-profit community interest company, to be owned and commissioned by the two councils. So whenever I’m in Kingston for work, I end up sitting at a desk which is about five metres away from where I sat back in 1992. That’s progress. But still, I remain glad that the only paid work I’ve undertaken in the last 30 years has been public service, which is much maligned nowadays, in no small part thanks to this utterly contemptible government of ours.

Friday was also the retirement day – therefore her leaving do in the evening – of a colleague whom I like(d) very much, for her dry wit as much as anything. You can’t survive for years in local government unless you have a penchant for drollery. I love leaving dos, because they are a chance to celebrate a working life well served, but also because they invariably draw old faces who haven’t been seen for some while. A bit like funerals but not quite as sad. Then there’s the booze, of course, as you can see from the picture of some eejit below. The poem below, which was published in Butcher’s Dog 8 in 2016 and then in The Evening Entertainment, was my attempt to make sense of such occasions.

The Leaving Do

You’re already ancient history:
for months you’ve been demob-happy
and senior management have less and less often
invited you to meetings or solicited your view;
so here you are yet again—though this time
unexpectedly for your turn—in the Fox and Hounds,
where your deputy reserved an area from 5pm:
you emailed every name in the corporate address book,
plus a few old faces who managed to escape before you;
anyone, basically, who might give a toss. After three jolly
Happy Hours, on an unknown but quaffable brand of fizz,
there’s a fair-sized turn-out considering it’s a school night.
Your team are patently delighted to be seeing you off,
though most dissemble from politeness. Some folk say
you’re going because you don’t think they’re good enough;
pronounce at the bar that you’ve been over-promoted.
One or two seem genuinely pleased to see you succeed.
Thus the evening develops into This is Your Life:
each vodka brings retirees looking so much chirpier
than before they left, and colleagues you’ve not seen
for yonks, fully reminding you why. That’s when
Vivienne from Finance appears at your elbow
and wells up unstoppably, as she’ll miss you ‘like mad’,
and you never, ever, even guessed.


The Bidding

Wednesday marked seven years since my dad died. So here’s a sonnet about him, concerning an important aspect of his retirement years, which Richard Skinner kindly published in his annual journal 14 in 2020.


The Bidding

We never saw our father bidding in stuffy,
Crockery-cluttered auction rooms across Surrey—      
Dorking, Shere, Reigate, Haslemere—for late-Georgian
Toby jugs; even so, we can all imagine

His tried and tested method of signalling a bid
Was the same as when oncoming vehicles slid
Politely into passing places and relinquished 
Right of way to his Fiesta: he acknowledged

Such sensible behaviour not by disclosing
A palm, a thumbs-up or peace sign, but raising
His trigger finger an inch; like a Sunday-outing
Farmer in a new black Mercedes, visiting

Beachy Head, who listens to Country and Western
To snuff out an upsurge of untold depression.

On dreams, Julian Cope and John Greening

In these dreadful times of international crisis, it’s unsurprising that several people I’ve talked to lately have reported that they’ve been having really out-there dreams, worthy almost of the psychedelic effects in Ken Russell’s Altered States, whose star, William Hurt died yesterday. My elder son told me about a dream he had of giant vampiric lobsters. I’ve been having vivid dreams, too, exacerbated by some virulent bug which has made me achy, heady and snotty since Saturday. This morning, I woke up, strangely, with the tune and words of ‘Lunatic and Fire Pistol’, the closing song of Julian Cope’s first solo album World Shut Your Mouth (1984), spinning around my head. I suppose that shouldn’t be altogether surprising since it’s an anti-war song, in the mould of Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’ and, more appositely, The Zombies’ ‘Butcher’s Tale’ from their masterpiece Odessey and Oracle (1968), which undoubtedly was among the great 60s psychedelic classics which influenced Cope – as much anything by Love, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Chocolate Watchband, etc. The Peel session version of ‘Lunatic and Fire Pistol’ can be heard here.

Cope(y) was and remains one of the greatest English/British psychedelists. For me, World Shut Your Mouth is up there with The Teardrop Explodes’ second album Wilder as being the highlight of his early career, if not his greatest achievement per se. (A Quietus article here quite rightly debunks the commonly-held view that Wilder was somehow inferior to Kilimanjaro; to me, the latter was a collection of very good pop songs thrown together rather than the cohesive great album-suite which Wilder was. I remembered earlier that I bought Wilder from Our Price on the Uxbridge Road after a QPR game.) As well as being lyrically and melodically superior to his subsequent output, World Shut Your Mouth features the mournful and really rather lovely oboe- and cor anglais-playing of the Raving Beauties’ and Dream Academy’s Kate St John on several tracks including the stand-out ‘Elegant Chaos’, which I would be very happy to have played at my funeral. Incidentally, St John plays a major role on Cope’s [****cliché klaxon alert****] fellow eccentric, literate visionary Van Morrison’s second-greatest album, 1986’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, and some of his subsequent lesser albums too. (The less said the better about Morrison’s anti-vaxx and other ramblings of the last year or so.) Both World Shut Your Mouth and Wilder remain very high on my list of all-time favourite albums four decades on.

In the last week or two I’ve been reading various pamphlets for reviewing purposes, though I’m glad to say that that’s been very much more of a pleasure than any kind of chore. I’ve also been working my way through Vapour Trails, John Greening’s 2020 collection of reviews and essays, published by Shoestring Press. A very fine poet himself of course, Greening is illuminating both on poets with whom most of his readers will surely be very familiar and on those with whom they might not be. In my case, he’s made me want to seek out the collected works of Fleur Adcock, Elaine Feinstein and Lotte Kramer, none of whose poetry I know especially well, and to fill the gaps in my collection of Peter Redgrove collections. Greening’s judgements are well-demonstrated with textual evidence and his opinions always seem deeply considered, sound and good-humoured. (I should add that I was delighted to find an excellent essay on Patricia Beer which Greening wrote in 2016 for The Dark Horse focused entirely on different poems from those which I discussed in my essay on Beer for The Friday Poem, but came to broadly the same conclusions about her poetry and outlook.) Whilst I’m on the subject of vapour trails, here is a singular one, another fantastic classic song from yesteryear, 1990 to be precise.

And whilst this time it’s clearly making me go all Smashie and Nicey, I’ve found from experience that being full of germs is not conducive to having the good critical sense required for drafting poems, so I’m thankful that I managed to write some new ones last weekend. Neither is it any good for writing reviews or essays which I must crack on with.

On ‘The Rupert Man’

My poem, ‘The Rupert Man’ is featured today over at Bad Lilies, here. I’m very grateful to Kathryn Gray and Andrew Nielson for publishing it, not least because it’s one of those poems which has been through hundreds of versions, some of which were rejected by other editors, before it reached this final state. I usually prefer to let the poem speak for itself, but I hope this note might provide some additional interest, especially for anyone who, like I did, read the Rupert annuals as a child and/or watched the TV adaptation in the early 1970s.

In 1935, Alfred, known as ‘Fred’, Bestall (1892–1986) became the second illustrator, after its creator, Mary Tourtel, and then writer also, of the Rupert Bear strip in the Daily Express. He ended that involvement in 1965, but continued illustrating the Rupert annuals until he retired for good in 1973. The visit of the Oz trio – presumably Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson – to his house in Cranes Park, Surbiton, is mentioned in a 2003 biography of Bestall by his niece, Caroline Bott. The ‘Schoolkids’ issue of Oz featured a priapic version of Rupert and resulted in a landmark 1971 obscenity trial, and acquittal on appeal, of its three editors.

The poem’s trigger was my daily walk past Bestall’s house on my way to work in Kingston, at a time, 2014 to 2018, when I lived opposite Surbiton Hill Methodist Church, which Bestall attended for many years; and the happy fact that, among the sub-collection of books which my dad accumulated by and about great children’s books illustrators – Potter, Rackham, Shepard, etc. – there were two copies of Bott’s biography. Bott’s brief reference to the Oz trio’s visit piqued my interest as one of those apparent culture clashes where, conversely, commonality thrived.

As you can see, Bestall’s house has a blue plaque, the sight of which never failed to cheer me up as I went past.

The issue of notes is a thorny one. I recently read a poetry collection containing lots of end-notes which were often more interesting than the actual poems. (I realise that is subjective and what the poet chooses to include and what to omit from the poem is up to them.) Other poems seemed all but nonsensical without the notes; a feeling familiar to me from being in galleries looking at pieces of art whose labels were essential to be able to grasp the significance of the images / constructions. Equally, I’ve read poetry collections where the poems have been crying out for end-notes, as though not to include them constitutes a deliberate withholding of requisite information. Yes, we all have access to search engines and reference books, but it is arguably an act of generosity to the reader to provide notes where they are needed. So why did I not include a footnote when I submitted this poem to Bad Lilies? I hear you ask. As I implied, I find notes to be essential only when they either explain an obscure fact or technical term or if they add information which supplements, rather than explains, the ‘meaning’ of the poem. In this instance, I did think about having an extra stanza or two to cover the ‘Schoolkids’ issue of Oz and the trial, but on reflection, rather than opening it out to a wider picture, I wanted the focus to be on Bestall, on his actual and created worlds, and on his interaction with three young people whose perspectives would, on the face of it, have been very different to his.

Poems and Pictures

I have a poem, ‘Movement is Life’, up at Poems and Pictures, here, on the Mary Evans Picture Library website. I’m grateful to the editor, Gill Stoker. The poem’s title derives from the motto of the Women’s League of Health and Beauty, a British then worldwide mass fitness organisation whose sessions my mum attended twice a week for the best part of fifty years. Founded in 1930 by aristocratic Nazi sympathisers, it was modelled on similar organisations in Germany, though it has long since been rebranded as the Fitness League. I hasten to add that all the Nazi connections were long since forgotten by the time my mum joined, in the Sixties. Many of her best friends were ones she met at League, as they all called it.

On George Fullard and history

The sculptor George Fullard seems little remembered outside his native Sheffield these days. Within the city, his memory is kept present in physical form: ‘Mother and child’, ‘Angry woman’ and ‘Running woman’ outside the Upper Chapel in Norfolk Street, and ‘Walking man’, outside the Winter Garden in Surrey Street; all of which were executed in clay in 1957 and cast in bronze long after his fatal heart attack, at the age of just fifty, on Christmas Day 1973. (Fullard was fortunate to have lived even half a century, having almost died when hit by fire as he was getting out of his tank at the fourth and final Battle of Monte Cassino in May 1944.)

They are curious, very distinctive sculptures, full of movement. ‘Walking man’, my favourite, is almost a caricature. In his 2016 monograph on Fullard, Michael Bird says that it is ‘possibly modelled on a Darnall resident known as Long Sammy’.

‘Walking man’

In profile, the ‘Walking man’ has a certain similarity to the headmaster when I was at secondary school. In an ideal world, I’ll write a poem, at a tangent, for each of the four sculptures – I’ve started, but I may not finish.

Bird’s excellent book contains this journal entry by Fullard, from 3 July 1966:

History in the conventional sense is merely tangible evidence [. . .], the means by which all can be proved guilty – not just the murderer. The real truth cannot be formed into rational evidence – it is the lost facts of life outside that which could be recorded as history. History, the known evidence then, is hardly of interest in itself, but only to the extent to which it gives clues to the truth outside the evidence. The truth behind history is not ‘known’, it cannot be told, but it can be realised and the realisation can be manifest. This is not ‘evidence’ – in the sense of history – but it is a kind of testimony – therefore ‘the secret history of our times’ is what the artist is manifesting and concerned with. This is true of all ‘artists’ in all ages – evident in the work for all to see.
  
‘The secret history of our times’ is the means by which innocence (as opposed to guilt) is revealed.

It’s no surprise to me that John Berger was Fullard’s first great champion among British art critics of the 1950s, since Berger had a similar outlook – both were Marxists as young men and adopted more nuanced, but still radical, viewpoints as they got older. I have a quote from Berger which, more succinctly, says more or less the same as what Fullard was getting at here (and which will be an epigraph for my second collection if it ever appears). It’s what I try to make manifest in my many memory poems, another eight of which will be published in the next three months.

On Louis Wain and Why I Write Poetry

Yesterday, Lyn and I went to see The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the man himself, Claire Foy as his sisters’ governess who became his wife, and a tremendous supporting cast. Films which travel along the arc of a real person’s life often disappoint I find; here, though, the script, design, music and, above all, the acting, seemed perfectly appropriate. It’s a beautiful film, a heady mixture of happiness and sadness.

I’d been very much looking forward to seeing it, mainly because Wain was an artist whose famous cat pictures my dad adored from a young age right up to the end of his pre-dementia years. Dad had books on Wain, paintings and prints of illustrations by him, but also loved cats per se. As the film made abundantly clear, Wain captured the cattishness of cats like nobody before or since.

For my part, I, too, have long been a fan, especially of the ‘stranger’, more psychedelic pictures which Wain painted towards the end of his life. I was fortunate to be based for work, for Richmond Council, in Twickenham for many years, during which Orleans House Gallery – which is still run by the Council – put on several exhibitions of what’s nowadays known as Outsider Art. This is chiefly art made by individuals who were self-taught, outside the traditional route of art school training and gallery representation, and invariably dismissed in their lifetimes (and since) by art critics as ‘mad’ and therefore unworthy of serious critical attention. Often, as in the case of Wain, that sense was reinforced by the artists’ detention in asylums.

Colin Rhodes, who has devoted much academic effort into recognising and celebrating the value of Outsider Art, has written, in an accompanying book (Private Worlds: Outsider and Visionary Art) for an Orleans House exhibition that:

[. . .] there are also other figures who do not easily conform to the professionalised notion of the artist, and who occupy more marginalised positions in an artworld context, as well as more often than not in socio-cultural terms, but whose work is no less interesting and important than that of their peers at the centre. [. . .] At a local level, then, these are individuals who usually find themselves ostracised through what I will call the ‘visionary’ nature of their perception.

It’s strange, though, that the works of, say, Blake, Dadd, Martin, Palmer and Spencer, all of whose works are peculiarly their own, are displayed in the grandest of exhibition spaces, but there still remains a whole galaxy of great art which, if it is allowed at all, is shown only, and briefly, in more peripheral art spaces. Of course, these attitudes change with time – the paintings of van Gogh were wholly disregarded in his lifetime, Blake’s almost completely too, but command vast amounts of attention (and monetary value) now; whereas others continue still to be treated as insignificant despite their brilliance. Wain was a hugely popular artist, but treated far more as a ‘commercial artist’ rather than, say, a ‘serious’ artist, to be mentioned in the same breath as his almost exact contemporary Sickert. It is much to be cherished that there is increasing recognition of neurodiversity, in society at large and among creatives in particular, as something to be valued and accorded the same generosity of attention as those whose behaviours and output conform more broadly to societal ‘norms’.

I’m currently reading, and very much admiring, the excellent Nine Arches Press book, Why I Write Poetry, edited by Ian Humphreys, in which 25 contemporary UK-based poets address aspects of their poetry practice and motivation. The subtitle, of sorts, of the book is, ‘essays on becoming a poet, keeping going and advice for the writing life’. These words from Rosie Garland chime precisely with attitudes to artists like Wain:

‘Outsider’ is an opinion, imposed by those who regard themselves as ‘inside’, and impose their arbitrary norms.

Yesterday was the seventy-fifth birthday, as it were, and tomorrow marks six years since the death, of the person who did as much as anyone to give licence to outsiders in the UK and beyond: David Bowie. Later this year, it will be fifty years since his incarnation as Ziggy Stardust changed many people’s lives forever. His first gig as Ziggy took place on 10 February 1972, at the Toby Jug pub at Tolworth roundabout, a mile away from the house in Old Malden that my parents, brothers and I had just moved into. We got our cat, Puzzle, shortly after. I read the other day an excellent piece, here, about Bowie’s northern patrilineage.

The sense of being an outsider, of ‘othering’, is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a recurrent theme in the book. Nine Arches, like increasing numbers of others, is a publisher which specialises in bringing to the fore poetry by diverse voices who would undoubtedly have been marginalised, if not entirely unpublished, in previous generations, and the much longer established poetry publishers seem to have started to respond too. I’m very glad, incidentally, that Nine Arches will be publishing Ramona Herdman’s first full collection this year. Of late, I’ve also been (re-)reading Caleb Parkin’s Nine Arches collection, This Fruiting Body, which is full of riches – even his most straightforward poems, such as his magnificent ‘Ode on a Black Plastic Compost Bin’, are so lush that each one needs properly savouring.

There is much to relate to, to be inspired by, and to reflect upon in Why I Write Poetry’s essays. Each is heartfelt and I know I will come back to them again.

On Sylvia Kantaris and Kirsty Karkow

Before 2021 ends, there’s just time to note the passing of two fine poets.

Sylvia Kantaris, who died in November, was a poet whose name I’d long been aware of but whose poetry I hadn’t read until recently. I bought a copy of her 1985 collection The Sea at the Door in Nottingham in August and I’ve enjoyed many of its poems; for example, her colourful character study of her grandfather, ‘William Yates’, which opens thus:

Elbows stuck out like a Toby-jug,
thumbs in the belt strapped
under his stomach as if to hold it up,
Grandad stood between Margot Fonteyn
and us, and paused
before delivering the verdict:
‘Bloody bally!’
At one flick of the wrist
the swan gave up its ghost.
Grandad walked out
We knew he wasn’t really a poet.


Bloodaxe recently released a statement about her, containing a tribute to her by Philip Gross, which is available here.

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I was sad to read that Kirsty Karkow had died, on Christmas Eve. She was a fine haiku and tanka poet. I had some correspondence with her twenty or so years ago and had been in online kukai groups with her in the late ’90s. She’d lived in Maine for many years but was born and educated in England. On Curtis Dunlap’s old ‘Blogging Along Tobacco Road’ blog, which was always a pleasurable read, you can still find Kirsty’s admirable contribution, here.

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Finally, a thank you to everyone who’s read, liked, commented on, shared any of my posts this year. Happy New Year to you – here’s hoping it will be a happier year than 2021 has been.

On scarecrows

Last night, I watched the latest wonderful Worzel Gummidge story by Mackenzie Crook, the fifth he’s written, directed and starred in. As Andy Paciorek wrote in an essay in issue two, available here, of the excellent Waiting for You: a Detectorists zine, ‘The writing, casting, acting and the luscious Unthanks’ music [. . .] blend mellifluously to create a rare, special slice of television.’ Hooray, then, for another episode tonight.

The programme never fails to remind me that my paternal great-grandfather was a scarecrow. Yes, really. It was his first job after finishing what little formal education he received. My granddad wrote a bit about it in his memoirs, which I then used as the starting-point for my poem about it, which was published in The Evening Entertainment:


Scarecrow
      
       Charles Paul, Aged Ten, 1872

St Swithun’s Day dawn. A goshawk
fossicks the fields of Combe Hill Farm.
All the crows and jackdaws have flown.
Charley drowses within the corn,
though woe betide if Master Buss,
the headman, should witness him so.
 
Charley can read and write; will soon
become a journeyman butcher
in Eastbourne, wed, like his parents,
at the Zoar Strict Baptist Chapel,
Lower Dicker, then propagate
roses and seven fine children.

Now, he scares a ten-hour day,
for a shilling sixpence per week,
swivelling the rat-a-tat clapper
over his head, like the Zulu
chieftains brandishing assegais
in Illustrated London News.