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.

*

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.

*

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.

The arch Deakin

Another entry in the wonderful Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, on pp.228–9:

Obscurity is what a writer needs to get on with work well away from the public gaze. Under the glare of lights is the last place you want to be, so, moth-like, you burrow away into some basement or corner of the country, where you can talk to yourself, pace about and think. [. . .] Above all else, though, the writer needs not to think too much about what he’s [sic] doing. [. . .] I blame the Romantics for all this self-consciousness about landscape and inspiration. Wandering lonely as a cloud may be the last thing you need sometimes. Going round the corner for breakfast in a steamy café may be much more like it.

Although he lived alone, on the edge of a common in Suffolk, Deakin seems to have been a gregarious soul, as happy in the city as he was in the sticks, and content to find beauty in the smallest of things. Kathleen Jamie’s description, in this review, of his friend Robert Macfarlane as a ‘lone enraptured male’, seeking out wild(er)ness like a Victorian colonialist, fitted Deakin rather less easily despite the latter often (including by Jamie) being cited as Macfarlane’s ‘mentor’. Macfarlane made several appearances in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, as did Ronald Blythe and Richard Mabey, but Deakin spent more prose on articulating how he would miss his postman, who was moving on, than any of them.

I’m glad to have found a radio programme by Deakin, canoeing down the Waveney, here.

Incidentally, I wonder if the days of steamy cafés, with Formica tables and squeezy plastic tomatoes full of ketchup, are all but gone forever. When I was about 20, my list of books I would never get round to writing included a guide to where you could get the best all-day veggie breakfasts in London – it would’ve been an intense labour of love.

Return to Hope

No, this isn’t inspired by Johnny Mathis blaring out at all hours, but my Christmas Eve trip out into the Peaks. I caught the Hope Valley line from Sheffield and walked along to Brough, with the intention of finding the site of the Roman fort Navio, before taking an anti-clockwise route up Win Hill.

Navio, first established around 80 CE, was strategically important for the Romans because it was the next fortress across middle England from Templeborough, remnants of which now stand in Clifton Park, Rotherham, just down the road from where I am now. In his Roman Britain (1955), the first volume of ‘The Pelican History of England’ (sic), I.A. Richmond outlined its economic importance also: ‘Yet another exploitation is the lead ore from stream deposits found in the Roman fort at Navio (Brough on Noe), from which the district was in part policed.’ Lead was invaluable to the Romans as a source of silver by the process of cupellation, and no doubt a major reason why they hung around in this distant island for as long as they did.

There are all but the slightest traces of the fort on the site. Buxton Museum contains the artefacts recovered from it. It must’ve been a bleak place to be stationed, even with the view across the River Noe towards Lose Hill, and Mam Tor to the west. Auden’s couplet sonnet ‘Roman Wall Blues’, with its memorable opening, comes to mind:

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

I didn’t go up Win Hill though, for two reasons: firstly, its summit, Win Hill Pike, was wrapped in low cloud; and secondly, my eye was drawn to a path which led from the road-bridge at Brough along the Noe to where it rushes in to the Derwent at the delightfully-named Shatton; and then by the path which followed the south bank of the Derwent to just south of Hathersage. On paper it looked an easy walk, and for two miles or so it was, until the path got muddier and muddier and so squelchy and slippery that my pace was considerably slower than the river’s.

It’s a wonder that I only fell over the once, and, moreover, that I didn’t slip down the steep bank into the river. As an exercise in eye–feet coordination, it was scarcely beatable.

mid-river riffles . . .
at right angles
to the flow

I was much relieved to reach the bridge at Leadmill and the wonder of pavement, leading to Hathersage.