With thanks to editor Hilary Menos, I have another piece on The Friday Poem today: a review, available here, of Sarah Mnatzaganian’s marvellous Lemonade in the Armenian Quarter, published by the estimable Against the Grain Poetry Press. As ever, though, there’s plenty of other, excellent stuff on there.
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.
Over on The Friday Poem, I have another essay, here, entitled Considering the Effects; on three poems about bowls (yes, really) by Stephen Payne, Pauline Stainer and Ted Walker. My thanks to editor Hilary Menos, and to HappenStance, Bloodaxe and London Magazine Editions for permissions to quote the poems in full.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.