My Himalayan odyssey began with a jeep-taxi from Siliguri, the furthermost city of the Gangeatic plains. At one point there were 16 people in it & on it, but it was all good fun, & as we rose up among deliciously wooded hills, the rush of India faded away like hairs on a moulting Cat. As we snaked up the road-slopes, our taxi-driver mention’d his family had a guest house, & after him dropping packages & people around Mirik for an hour, we were on the drive to his pad when lo & behold Andy & Tereza were chugging thro’ town with their backpacks.
‘Jump in,’ I said, & picking up another English guy called Pete en route, we’d set up home in this proper buzzing guest house, with immaculate rooftop views of the lakes, a stunning, gold-gilded Buddhist monastery right next to us, giant tumuli-tea estates all surrounding, & India’s highest peak, Mount Kangchezonga, in all its glory, the sight of which inspir’d the following sonnet
I came on Pemagangtse in the night
A leopard passing slowly in the snow
Awaiting precious pinch of silver light
Announcing phoenix day in foetal glow
I gazed across the Kabrus unaware
That to these climes had Calliope come
Slopes glooming greys, as sunbeams fill the air
They turn the burnish’d burgondy of rum
Savitri’s spell impells the Sun to strength
Red turns to orange, orange burns to gold
& as all shadows shorten in their length
What summit sparkles white, where, very cold,
My muse sits, singing, wisest of the nine
“On Nanda Devi waits my sister’s sign!”
Mirik is yet another India, with everywhere the Asiatic faces of the Nepalese & their language – there’s not a sari or a wobble of the head to be seen. It is a part of West Bengal, but there are massive efforts to give the area state status – it makes proper sense really. This was highlighted by us joining in a cricket match with some young lads & I declared it an India– England world cup match. ‘WE ARE GHOKARLAND!’ they insisted, & went on to stuff us. It’s a cool pitch, with a six scor’d from a hit into the lake. The next day we went back for more, & getting a few locals on our side we went down to the last couple of balls – we’re gonna win soon, I can tell. After the match we had a drinking session at the house, fill’d out with the delicious home cooking of our hosts – with salads & veg fresh from their garden. This food was rival’d earlier in town, however, by the best puri in India, & the white lumps of lard that are call’d momos. You get these great large dumpling types full of veg, or these mini ones with unadulterated beef. Tasty as fuck!
It was in the momo shack, with papers & books spread all before me, with several pairs of narrow Gorkha eyes staring at me, that I loved just being a poet abroad. Amazing moments of actualisation that verify that day on the Cliffs over Portovenere where I truly dedicated myself to poetry. This is the sonnet I compos’d in those moments;
I march on different minds in different ways,
A force beyond all knowledges combined,
But let it now be known to each on Earth
I have a single name & that be God,
Tho’ splintered by the tangl’d knot of tongues,
For as a man in Orchaa calls me Ram,
In Qadian as Allah am I prais’d.
Now reconciling all these diffírences,
To every race a prophet have I sent,
To fill them with the milk of mine intent,
A source of common good, a common source
From which this well-font of my message springs,
A clear soul-song for all who wish to hear,
Thro’ Me find Heaven & in Heaven, Love!
Ah… what a glory it is to be in Darjeeling, an epic sprawl of a place that clings to the hills like the houses of Sheffield & Rome. Unlike those cities, however, beneath them the hills just keep on dropping. Then you have wonderful hills rising across the valleys in splendid majesty; on one side, the snow peaks of Kangchendzonga & its attendant mountains remind me most of all of the glory of nature. India’s highest peak lies before me, & only a few hundred meters shy of Everest – I think its number three in the world. I’ve been admiring it, sipping the celestial golden nectar of unmilked, unsugared Oolong tea, slowly wandering the narrow streets & sharp steps of Darjeeling. Thro’ the main road runs the tracks of the train that heaves itself up from the plains on a narrow gauge. The Indian sun is hot, but the skin is cool’d by the mountain air, a perfect sensorary experience. I’m here with Andy, who has just had a successful mission buying two Ghorka WW2 war medals from a cool curio shop, to replace the ones his grandfather had stolen a few years ago in Britain – a sentimental gift for his auntie & his mum.
This morning I went on a walk & got chatting to this beautiful guy, who suddenly points out a hill about two hundred meters away, with a wee village perch’d upon it, was Nepal! I could veritably touch it, & would have gone there & then, but I thought I’d research the geopolitics it first. This led me to discover that the Indian government has introduc’d this new rule that says if you leave the country, you cannot come back for two months. Off the record, however, if you do a Colditz-style mission over the border (with a joint’s worth in the pocket of course) – what can they do? Indian rupees are valid over there – in fact there are no restrictions for Indians crossing the border at all. Its been a long time since I’d gone on a memorable adventure, & its about time I saw another country, so I’m off in a few days on a wee madcap. Kathmandu’s 20 hours away by bus, but I reckon I’ll just fanny about the east of the country. Besides, I dont think I’ll get that far up Everest in mi flip-flops! Here’s what m’ mates Phil & Steve – regular Nepal visitors – had to say on the matter:
Nepal is havin free entry to get the tourists back year .. free one month visa .. otherwise its a porous border – a paraglider I know flew across the border and back after 6 months .. you can walk through if you can do a minor invisibility thing at Sinauli (have someone take yer pack) – and the same out as long as yr indian visas in order, also the 2 months out thing was a reaction to a someone on a British passport going in and out of Pakistan on the 6 month thing – an so theyre trying to check people more, this is as of last year, and then you could do it legaly into nepal, and then go to indian embassy an show ‘em your ticket out of india and get a new indian visa for a month or 2 week transit .. so its negotiable sort of thing, but sure you can slip through and back
Sneaking into nepal, hhmmmm, its actually quite easy to do at the border crossings, when stuck on india border for the night its easy to just walk across the border and get a nice nepali beer. The majority of hotels do check your visa, especially in the small towns, and if you did get caught it would be big trouble in a sub-continental sort of way, probably end up a few days at least in prison cell, with lots of flapping and accusations of spying. And worst of all a heap big fine, or donation to local police christmas fund. but my advice is stay longer and by a ticket back from nepal with air arabia (arab ryan air) to Istanbul. It was about 100 quid couple of years ago.
Today we busted into Nepal! It was only a brief foray, but funny as fuck.So I led Charlie to the brim of the valley, pointed out Nepal, then plunged down the 100 metres or so, then back up the other side, to find ourselves in a little narrow village. Finding a shack, we proceeded to grab some excuisite noodles in beef soup, wash’d down by bottles of brandy about half the price than in India. The friendly, vaguely astonish’d seem’d to enjoy our company, & accepting rupees, gave us our change in Nepalese money. On them was printed Mount Everest, & so I can now say with some honesty I have been to Nepal & seen Everest. At that I said to Charlie maybe its better we left before we got lumber’d, so off we went back down into the valley & back into Mirik. A few hours later we were then back on our way to Calcutta & a sleeper train.
Last night was entertaining, when a sudden bout of dysentery struck Charlie who was soon pathetically hanging off his sleep bed with his undies round his ankles & an Indian man hovering above him menacingly wanting to chuck him off the train. The dysentry had floored him – literally, pinning him to the skanky train toilet while his entire body gush’d fluids. Just like me on the boat to Andaman. He was so weak & confused that he sat down on the wrong sleeper bed – stinking of shit in his undies remember – right on top of a menacing guys wife. I sooth’d the situation & once we got to Calcutta got him the same tablets I’d had.
This got him right enough to get to the airport for his flight home & suddenly I was alone – well, apart from the guys at the Modern Lodge to where I’d return’d. Also there were three Australian bonnie lasses with a bottle of ketamine, & cook’d it up for them while they went out for some food. On returning, we chopp’d the lines out & I ended the day barechested in their room, drinking rum, all three of them led silently in a k-hole, in & around my legs. A much better scenario than sharing a room with Charlie!
Today was the World Cup semi-final – with India playing arch-rivals Pakistan. An extremely exciting day – the match was on everywhere & the tension was palpable. Towards the end of the day, in the dark, I was watching the final overs in this mad wee political party office for the vibes, & after they won the ‘war,’ the streets of Calcutta exploded into ecstasy; five guys on a single bike streaming past, the flag of India fluttering behind them; groups of young lads running down every street cheering their head off; the massive jam of people & cars & people on cars down Park Street, screaming & singing & all sorts. A proper awesome display of euphoria, like a squat party without the drugs. It was a wonder to witness & be an actual part of!
Tomorrow I’ve decided to leave Calcutta, heading back to Plassey & then Murshidibad, before finally facing the sunset & heading west. I think I’ll be heading to the supposedly amazing Varansi, then on to Delhi before heading north to see the Himalayas on the other side of Nepal. It is there, in Kashmir, that the tomb of ‘Yuz Asaf’, a suitable destination for my investigation into the Indian Jesus.
I am writing this on the evening of Day 121, because of the following rather harrowing & extremely narrow escape…
With poesis brimming from every fibre, I felt compell’d to take that trip to Plassey, 150K north of Calcutta, to check out the battlefield where Clive won Britain her first important slice of Raj cake. The events surrounding that 1757 battle are a microcosm of the British Empire in India. Despite having just 3,000 troops against 50,000, Clive of India somehow pull’d off the win. By promising the leader of part of his opposition’s army leadership of the region, he managed to sow discord & the guy buggar’d off from the field with all his men. What was left to fight was soon defeated with accurate volleys of rifle fire. Thus, by playing off prince against prince, like at Plassey, the British slowly conquer’d the sub-continent & held down a country of 300 million souls with just British 40,000 soldiers.
Reaching the battlefield’s nearest station, I hired a cycle rickshaw to show me what was left of any features of the field, all spent underneath a hot & shimmering sun. I’ve hit the Gangeatic plane now, & all one can see is alluvial flatlands at every turn. After a couple of hours pottering & musing on the dark dragonflies that darted hither & thither, my guide dropp’d me off at the bus stop where I hopp’d on a bus to Murshidabad, the capital of Clive’s opponent in 1757, the Nawab of Bengal. I noticed the driver was a bit reckless, but this didn’t phase me as I’ve gotten used to the crazy roads & nothing has happen’d… until now. I was happily cruising along in the middle of one of those days that makes life worthwhile when I black’d out. Regaining consciousness several hours later I found myself in a hospital ward, cover’d in blood & surrounded by my fellow passengers – some hook’d up to drips, moaning & in a pretty bad way. The fuckin’ bus had smash’d head on into a truck!
I took stock of my wounds… a face cover’d in minor scratches from flying glass (even my pockets had glass in them), two deep cuts to the temple (which still throbs painfully) & a completely fuck’d right shoulder. The hospital was pretty dire, & of course I have no insurance, so after blagging a sling I snook out the back (a burly security guard wouldn’t let me leave by the front) & caught a train to historical Murshidabad. My first attempt at finding a hotel room failed – I was so tatty & torn & bloody they wouldn’t let me in. I was luckier the second time – a grotty pad in run-down place, I found a room & went straight into a concussion-fuell’d, very deep, very heavy sleep…
Twas a quintessential English evening
All about town & the capital’s core,
On my arm a wonderful flutterling,
Perfectly amenable to the tour.
We met in a wine-bar off Trafalgar,
To delve within a cosy eaterie,
Then took our places at the theater
For the Mousetrap’s befuddling mystery.
O! The night brimm’d a goblet romantic
& our spirits, yes, they sparkl’d as the stars,
Rosie was a gentle alcoholic,
Floating, flirting, thro’ her favorite bars;
When to the chimes of Big Ben’s booming bells
We jump’d the last train down to Tunbridge Wells
ROSIE’S SCHOOL RUN
OH MY GOD! I’m having a nightmare,
Fuck, look at the fucking time!
The kids are doin’ my head in
With their school-stuff everywhere,
“Here’s yer shoes, here’s yer socks,
Heres yer fuckin’ sandwich box!”
“MUMMY… don’t swear!”
OH MY GOD! Its ten to nine now,
& my car-keys JUST AREN’T THERE!
Will it rain, will mum call,
Will I end up on the dole
O MY GOD! Its five to nine now
& the traffic’s hit a WALL!
THIS IS MY COUNTRY
Good Morning Great Britain
Still great, still Britain
The sun is shining, 10:45 AM
£296.26 pence in my pocket
Time to bet it all on black & hit the road again
If time is a mere scratch & life is nothing
& nothing that occurs is of the slightest importance
Aberdeen to Birmingham, Arundel & Deal
Dullis Hill to Rotherham, Bristol & Peel
Inverness to Liverpool, Leeds & Palmer’s Green
Lewisham to Padiham & all the pubs between
Badminton to Twickenham & Barton-in-the-Beans
‘Til my bardic breath expires
This is my Time,
This is my Rhyme,
This is my Country!
TRAINING IN THE ART OF FARE EVASION
The Fader Code
1 Remain alert
2 Always keep your cool
3 Trust your instincts
4 Never show your money
5 Know your stations
6 Another five minutes won’t hurt in the loo
7 Know your enemy
8 Know your postcodes
9 The train’s going there anyway
10 When in doubt, clout
11 Trains always comes when ya skinnin’ up
12 It is every Fader’s duty to baffle & confuse
13 Always remember your free cup of tea
14 No need to rush unless you’re being chas’d
RECOLLECTIONS: FIRST KISS
Partridge Walk, Burnley
I was a six-year-child when first I felt
My soul entwining with the fairer sex,
Em’rald-eyed neighbor, who, one starry night
Said, “Have you ever kiss’d a lass before?”
“Of course!” I yelp’d, but grandmas do not count
& as we kiss’d she giggled at my lips
Closed shut & clamp’d by frigid innocence,
& said, “No, not like that, ya kiss like this!”
& show’d me how my mouth should act a fish.
Soon sprinting home, embarrass’d at the deed,
That never was repeated I believe,
For looking back, I was, in tender days
Contented with the kisses of grandmas
& nee-owwwwing with little Corgi Cars.
I’m cringing every time I see a garish Paisley tie,
I’d just popp’d hungry into Greggs a hottish pie to buy
& chose a steak & kidney offer’d up for ninety pee,
I took the pie, she took the change & said, “It’s ninety-three!”
I said, “Love, that’s false advertising,” stormin’ out the door,
But never mess with Weegie Birds, they’re all fuckin’ hard-core,
& leaping from her hum-drum she pursued me down the street,
Looking as if an earthquake were shaking a slab of meat,
& panting now beside me squeez’d the pastie from my hans,
Smugging with satisfaction at her petty jobsworth’s stand
& turns her tail in triumph, as back to her shop she skips,
You coulda balanced ninety-three bridies on those fat hips,
Then looking down on what was left, my skin all bruis’d with mince,
I thought I’d catch the first train out – ain’t ever been back since!
LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT
Being virgin to Eros & his sighs
Spectral seconds attend the growing soul
Hearing a lute-string’d aether-breathing call
I turn’d to see her star-wreath’d, lustful eyes
My eagle-lashed, Latvian poetess,
My pearl-eyed raven in her Persian dress,
My Spanish pea-hen spangling as she comes,
My nude Numidian banging djembe drums.
Like mountain men & archipelagos
Or young sweethearts sniffing a first red rose
Like money men glimpsing a glint of gold
Or distant kin returning to the fold
Long time, for this fair moment, did we wait,
Which two sure hearts attaches into one,
& felt us fair as fairly dealt us fate
As, with a gasp, we match empyrean!
We are the music of the finches green
We are toa pussies purring by a fire
We are the fragrance of a vernal scene
We are two frogs full throated with desire
We are the thistle of your bonnie land,
We are toa rabbits sprinting cross the glen,
We are the seaweed strewn across the sand,
We are twa badgers snuggled in their den
There was an instant karma to our touch,
As if we had belong’d since time began,
For how can two new strangers feel so much,
Thro’ times like these life serves the higher plan
Like songbirds witnessing the world’s first dawn,
Or proud parents cooing their babe’s first yawn,
Like virgins witness to the breast exposed,
Or an exploring of the always closed,
We are morning in the Tuscan enclaves,
We are night on the Sea of Galilee,
We are swans a-gone gliding between white waves,
For we are one in nature, you & me.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF LOVE
We talk’d last night
& after we made love
I read to you the Lao-Tse Tung;
In my voice rose ancyent chimes,
Funell’d thro’ the Jiayuguan Pass
In elegant simplicity –
Lass, after we made love, I cherish’d thee!
Night comes again,
The drift of day deserts us,
The dusk is all that matters now, my love,
The light is dimming, but thine eyes are bright,
As cradl’d in these arms
You smile to me once more,
Love, let us talk again.
Embedded in canto III of Don Juan – stanzas 78-100 – is what can be consider’d Lord Byron’s ‘Apologie to poetry.’ It is a glorious mix of acute insight & criticism that reads amongst the best of his works. In the middle of the stanzas we can also find one of his most beautful ballads – named ‘The Isles of Greece’ – which invokes & laments the freedom of Greece. The extract begins with Juan & his recently acquired ladyfriend, Haidee, are lavishly entertaining in her father’s house, who they think as actually dead. Among the entertainers there is a famous poet which becomes the mouthpiece for Byron’s panaramic exposition of poetry.
And now they were diverted by their suite,
Dwarfs, dancing girls, black eunuchs, and a poet,
Which made their new establishment complete;
The last was of great fame, and liked to show it:
His verses rarely wanted their due feet;
And for his theme—he seldom sung below it,
He being paid to satirize or flatter,
As the psalm says, ‘inditing a good matter.’
He praised the present, and abused the past,
Reversing the good custom of old days,
An Eastern anti-jacobin at last
He turn’d, preferring pudding to no praise—
For some few years his lot had been o’ercast
By his seeming independent in his lays,
But now he sung the Sultan and the Pacha
With truth like Southey, and with verse like Crashaw.
He was a man who had seen many changes,
And always changed as true as any needle;
His polar star being one which rather ranges,
And not the fix’d—he knew the way to wheedle:
So vile he ‘scaped the doom which oft avenges;
And being fluent (save indeed when fee’d ill),
He lied with such a fervour of intention—
There was no doubt he earn’d his laureate pension.
But he had genius,—when a turncoat has it,
The ‘Vates irritabilis’ takes care
That without notice few full moons shall pass it;
Even good men like to make the public stare:—
But to my subject—let me see—what was it?-
O!—the third canto—and the pretty pair—
Their loves, and feasts, and house, and dress, and mode
Of living in their insular abode.
Their poet, a sad trimmer, but no less
In company a very pleasant fellow,
Had been the favourite of full many a mess
Of men, and made them speeches when half mellow;
And though his meaning they could rarely guess,
Yet still they deign’d to hiccup or to bellow
The glorious meed of popular applause,
Of which the first ne’er knows the second cause.
But now being lifted into high society,
And having pick’d up several odds and ends
Of free thoughts in his travels for variety,
He deem’d, being in a lone isle, among friends,
That, without any danger of a riot, he
Might for long lying make himself amends;
And, singing as he sung in his warm youth,
Agree to a short armistice with truth.
He had travell’d ‘mongst the Arabs, Turks, and Franks,
And knew the self-loves of the different nations;
And having lived with people of all ranks,
Had something ready upon most occasions—
Which got him a few presents and some thanks.
He varied with some skill his adulations;
To ‘do at Rome as Romans do,’ a piece
Of conduct was which he observed in Greece.
Thus, usually, when he was ask’d to sing,
He gave the different nations something national;
‘T was all the same to him—’God save the king,’
Or ‘Ca ira,’ according to the fashion all:
His muse made increment of any thing,
From the high lyric down to the low rational:
If Pindar sang horse-races, what should hinder
Himself from being as pliable as Pindar?
In France, for instance, he would write a chanson;
In England a six canto quarto tale;
In Spain, he’d make a ballad or romance on
The last war—much the same in Portugal;
In Germany, the Pegasus he ‘d prance on
Would be old Goethe’s (see what says De Stael);
In Italy he ‘d ape the ‘Trecentisti;’
In Greece, he sing some sort of hymn like this t’ ye:
THE ISLES OF GREECE.
The isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.
The Scian and the Teian muse,
The hero’s harp, the lover’s lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse;
Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires’ ‘Islands of the Blest.’
The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
A king sate on the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set where were they?
And where are they? and where art thou,
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now—
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?
‘T is something, in the dearth of fame,
Though link’d among a fetter’d race,
To feel at least a patriot’s shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush—for Greece a tear.
Must we but weep o’er days more blest?
Must we but blush?—Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae!
What, silent still? and silent all?
Ah! no;—the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent’s fall,
And answer, ‘Let one living head,
But one arise,—we come, we come!’
‘T is but the living who are dumb.
In vain—in vain: strike other chords;
Fill high the cup with Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of Scio’s vine!
Hark! rising to the ignoble call—
How answers each bold Bacchanal!
You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,
Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one?
You have the letters Cadmus gave—
Think ye he meant them for a slave?
Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon’s song divine:
He served—but served Polycrates—
A tyrant; but our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.
The tyrant of the Chersonese
Was freedom’s best and bravest friend;
That tyrant was Miltiades!
O! that the present hour would lend
Another despot of the kind!
Such chains as his were sure to bind.
Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
On Suli’s rock, and Parga’s shore,
Exists the remnant of a line
Such as the Doric mothers bore;
And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,
The Heracleidan blood might own.
Trust not for freedom to the Franks—
They have a king who buys and sells;
In native swords, and native ranks,
The only hope of courage dwells;
But Turkish force, and Latin fraud,
Would break your shield, however broad.
Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade—
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves
Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep;
There, swan-like, let me sing and die:
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!
Thus sung, or would, or could, or should have sung,
The modern Greek, in tolerable verse;
If not like Orpheus quite, when Greece was young,
Yet in these times he might have done much worse:
His strain display’d some feeling—right or wrong;
And feeling, in a poet, is the source
Of others’ feeling; but they are such liars,
And take all colours—like the hands of dyers.
But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think;
‘T is strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
Of ages; to what straits old Time reduces
Frail man, when paper—even a rag like this,
Survives himself, his tomb, and all that ‘s his.
And when his bones are dust, his grave a blank,
His station, generation, even his nation,
Become a thing, or nothing, save to rank
In chronological commemoration,
Some dull MS. oblivion long has sank,
Or graven stone found in a barrack’s station
In digging the foundation of a closet,
May turn his name up, as a rare deposit.
And glory long has made the sages smile;
‘T is something, nothing, words, illusion, wind—
Depending more upon the historian’s style
Than on the name a person leaves behind:
Troy owes to Homer what whist owes to Hoyle:
The present century was growing blind
To the great Marlborough’s skill in giving knocks,
Until his late life by Archdeacon Coxe.
Milton ‘s the prince of poets—so we say;
A little heavy, but no less divine:
An independent being in his day—
Learn’d, pious, temperate in love and wine;
But, his life falling into Johnson’s way,
We ‘re told this great high priest of all the Nine
Was whipt at college—a harsh sire—odd spouse,
For the first Mrs. Milton left his house.
All these are, certes, entertaining facts,
Like Shakspeare’s stealing deer, Lord Bacon’s bribes;
Like Titus’ youth, and Caesar’s earliest acts;
Like Burns (whom Doctor Currie well describes);
Like Cromwell’s pranks;—but although truth exacts
These amiable descriptions from the scribes,
As most essential to their hero’s story,
They do not much contribute to his glory.
All are not moralists, like Southey, when
He prated to the world of ‘Pantisocracy;’
Or Wordsworth unexcised, unhired, who then
Season’d his pedlar poems with democracy;
Or Coleridge, long before his flighty pen
Let to the Morning Post its aristocracy;
When he and Southey, following the same path,
Espoused two partners (milliners of Bath).
Such names at present cut a convict figure,
The very Botany Bay in moral geography;
Their loyal treason, renegado rigour,
Are good manure for their more bare biography.
Wordsworth’s last quarto, by the way, is bigger
Than any since the birthday of typography;
A drowsy frowzy poem, call’d the ‘Excursion.’
Writ in a manner which is my aversion.
He there builds up a formidable dyke
Between his own and others’ intellect;
But Wordsworth’s poem, and his followers, like
Joanna Southcote’s Shiloh, and her sect,
Are things which in this century don’t strike
The public mind,—so few are the elect;
And the new births of both their stale virginities
Have proved but dropsies, taken for divinities.
But let me to my story: I must own,
If I have any fault, it is digression—
Leaving my people to proceed alone,
While I soliloquize beyond expression;
But these are my addresses from the throne,
Which put off business to the ensuing session:
Forgetting each omission is a loss to
The world, not quite so great as Ariosto.
I know that what our neighbours call ‘longueurs’
(We ‘ve not so good a word, but have the thing
In that complete perfection which ensures
An epic from Bob Southey every spring),
Form not the true temptation which allures
The reader; but ‘t would not be hard to bring
Some fine examples of the epopee,
To prove its grand ingredient is ennui.
We learn from Horace, ‘Homer sometimes sleeps;’
We feel without him, Wordsworth sometimes wakes,—
To show with what complacency he creeps,
With his dear ‘Waggoners,’ around his lakes.
He wishes for ‘a boat’ to sail the deeps—
Of ocean?—No, of air; and then he makes
Another outcry for ‘a little boat,’
And drivels seas to set it well afloat.
If he must fain sweep o’er the ethereal plain,
And Pegasus runs restive in his ‘Waggon,’
Could he not beg the loan of Charles’s Wain?
Or pray Medea for a single dragon?
Or if, too classic for his vulgar brain,
He fear’d his neck to venture such a nag on,
And he must needs mount nearer to the moon,
Could not the blockhead ask for a balloon?
‘Pedlars,’ and ‘Boats,’ and ‘Waggons!’ Oh! ye shades
Of Pope and Dryden, are we come to this?
That trash of such sort not alone evades
Contempt, but from the bathos’ vast abyss
Floats scumlike uppermost, and these Jack Cades
Of sense and song above your graves may hiss—
The ‘little boatman’ and his ‘Peter Bell’
Can sneer at him who drew ‘Achitophel’!
It has been almost seven years since my return to Burnley & my survey there into the Brunanburh battlefield. With every atom in my body almost completely regenerated, its time for another historical dig. This time its to the island of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland. For a domicile I have two areas, both at Corrie. The first is its splendid hotel where I will be making breakfasts in the morning, & the second is a derelict bunkhouse where I will be camping & cleaning up the mess for its aristocratic landlord in return for my staying there. Its not quite Howard Carter & Lord Canarvon at the Valley of the Kings, but it is a distinct version of such. The reason being is that on Kintyre there are connections to Mycyneae & 18th dynasty Egypt, while Arran is the name of a Bronze Age prince from what is called Caucasian Albania (modern day Georgia) – this region is where the Picts are supposed to come from originally, so there’s the starting point for my studies – there’s about 1000 new sites been uncovered on Arran by Historic Environment Scotland using LIDAR techniques (light detection & ranging), among which might be crucial clues which connect Arran to the Picts & places like Caucasian Albania – that’s my hunch.
Arran is a cosmic island – the Goat Fell area is stunning & towers over Corrie. The rest of the isalnd is also beautiful – there is a coastal road all the round & another which halves the island. On one side is the mainland & the other the fabulous finger stretch of Kintyre, giving the illusion of being at the heart of a gigantic lake – a dragons’ eye jewel set in a pearl of amber. There are enough hillforts & stone circles to get started on before I even attempt an investigation into the radarfound sites. There’s also plenty of philology to apply my chispological techniques onto, & , yes everything is sweet today having been given confirmation about my camping spot. I do have a little gout however, I;m on the verge of 45 & staying at a hotel isnt helping my alcohol-abstinence, but all is well really.
On Arrival On Arran
Remember the moment Arran came real
Sat on a stone by a sunbathing seal
Perch’d upon pyramid, sea splash & splish
& God has put a dog’s head on a fish
The eldest led like lions oer the bay
The youngest lifted heads & look’d my way
One shifted weight & slid into the sea
To settle on a shallow shelf near me
She knew I was a poet, I could tell,
Perhaps it was my solitary dell
Of silent thoughts, thro’ these I did commune
With nature’s ancyent, all-beauteous boon,
A sprig of scented poesy enters mind,
The future real, the past a dream behind.
I shall be here now for several months. My library is already taking shape – the grandaughter of the famous Scottish playwright, Robert Mclellan, lives up at High Corrie in her grandfather’s cottage, & has already furnished me with some poetry – I shall be composing three conchordia while I am on the island. Also into the mix goes an almanc being created my my fellow breakfast chef/server, Tony, who is almost at the end of a three year composition of an incredibly comprehensive Arran almanac. He has leant me several books too – writing them down in a little notebook of his own so he’ll get them back. These include The Isle of Arran by the aforementioned Robert McLellan, & the Arran Coastal Way by Jacquetta Megarry.
Also in the library is Nigel Tranter’s ‘The Bruce Triology’ which I shall be raiding for one of my new conchordia – The King & the Spider – based on the early stages of the rise Robert The Bruce to the Scottish kingship. Another book is This Dear Place, written by a local lassie & ‘one of the Few’, Lesley Paton Cox, a labour of love which in her words, ‘wanted to speak about the people of our Corrie & Sannox past… to ensure that information about the folk of our two villages, their ancestors & their home here would be available for future generations.’ This book then planted a seed to create a conchord about the Highland Clearances. The other conchord will be MADCHESTER about the 89-90 halycon age of The Stone Roses & Happy Mondays.
So we’re off – the gardens of study & creativity has been planted & it is time to water them through the summer season…
Damian Beeson Bullen
A Sonnet Sequanza
The Tragic Early Loves of Ted Hughes
NEWHAM COLLEGE (1956)
Where was it, in the Strand? A display
Of news items, in photographs.
For some reason I noticed it.
A picture of that year’s intake
That night was nothing
But getting to know how smooth your body is
The memory of it goes through me like brandy
Little soft places little puss
I wish you were still here
Or rather I wish I was still there
I would kiss you slowly from toe up
I neglected you
One of my most tormenting thoughts
Is that I didn’t suck & lick & nibble you
All night long
Kiss you for me Sylvia
& again & again
& fall asleep kissing your arm
SPANISH HONEYMOON (1956)
Swaying so slender
It seemed your long, perfect American legs
Simply went on up. That flaring hand,
Those long balletic, monkey-elegant fingers.
And the face – a tight ball of joy.
I have met a first rate American poetess
She really is good
Certainly one of the best
Female poets I ever read
& a damned sight better than the run of the good male
Her main enthusiasm at present is me
& she thinks my verses are as good as I think they are
& has accordingly despatched about twenty five
To various immensely paying American Mags
She is Scorpio : Oct 27th
Moon in Libra
Last degree of Aries rising
& has her Mars smack on my sin
Which is all very approprioate
HUGHES’ MUSE (1957)
Your frenzy made me giddy.
It woke up my dumb, ecstatic boyhood
Of fifteen years before. My masterpiece
Came that black night on the Grantchester road
Marriage is my medium
We work & walk about
& repair each others writings
She is one of the best critics I ever met
Understands my imagination perfectly
& I think I understand hers
It’s amazing how we strike sparks
When we’re fed up of that
We walk out into the country
& sit for hours watching things
We sit by the river & watch water voles
& when they come near, Sylvia
Goes almost unconscious with delight
BIRTH OF FRIEDA (1960)
I saw it with horrible premonition.
You were alone there, pregnant, unprotected
In some inaccessible dimension
Whare that creature had you, now, to himself.
The contractions began almost at once
Stronger & stronger & more & more painful
The midwife was a little Indian woman
Adamant for natural, drugless childbirth
She showed me the black hair on top of the babys head
& showed it to Sylvia in a mirror, very merrily
The head appeared like a mushroom
Then all at once it slid clean out
Looking exactly like a pink translucent balloon
Smeared all over with a whitish cream
Goolike wet fur
A little girl
It gave a little sneeze
& mutter’d to itself
& began to move its fingers
FABER RECEPTION (1960)
To hold the reins of the straining attention
Of your imagined audience – you declaimed Chaucer
To a field of cows
At the Faber party
Sylvia talked quite a lot
To McNeice & Spender
Spender was drunk
Silly-giddly like Mabel Brown
At her 9-year old birthday party
McNeice was drunk & talked
Like a quick fire car salesman
I talked to Elliot – he’s been ill
His wife was supporting him
She is so Yorkshire you could smile
I scarcely spoke to Auden
He was overpowered by the blue-haired hostesses
That seem to run these meetings
BABY FRIEDA (1960)
I was a nursemaid. I fancied myself at that.
I liked the crisi of the vital role.
I felt things had become real. Suddenly mother,
As a familiar voice, woke in me.
Little Freida is wrestling in her pen
She is very self sufficient in entertaining herself
Gnawing a rusk, smiling round
Humming to herself now & then
Watching for the hours
The other day I looked into the bedroom
Hearing her croon
& there she was leaning over the top bar of her crib
Chin on her folded arm – standing
Ever since then shes been pulling herslf upright
First thing in the morning
As I take her into the bedroom
She bursts into laughter at the sight of Sylvia
With a real gurgling laugh
COURT GREEN (1962)
After all these there marcht a most faire Dame,
Led of two grysie villeins, th’one Despight,
The other cleped Cruelty by name
The cherry trees are loaded with purple blossom
Just on the point of exploding
Sylvia’s been loading her flower beds with seeds
& I’ve been sowing the vegetable garden
Martial rows of beans & peas
Appearing almost immediately
Freida of course is the great blossom
Baby Nick is completely different from her
He has a most complicated side
Frieda’s is just a 1000 kilowatt radiance
His gives the impression of being a sage
I think Sylvia’s happier here
Now the good weathers come
Than she’s been since I’ve known her
ENTER ASSIA (1962)
Every heartbeat a fresh throw of the dice –
A click of Russain roulette: Strange
To be lying on my bed
Contemplating my heart as it knocked me to pieces.
She got to know all sorts of curious details
I put it down to clairvoyance
Which works at full power where other women are concerned
Yes its just like her to employ a snoop
Sometimes she wants a legal sepeartoion
Sometimes a divorce at once
I’ve left her in Ireland
While I attend to one or two small things
I shan’t be back at court green until Oct 1st
By then shell probably be wanting a divorce
In her manner shes changed Extraordinaraily
Become much more as she was when I first knew her
& much more like her mother, who I detest
I listened, as I sealed it up from myself
(The twelve-hour ice-crawl ahead).
I peered awhile, as through the keyhole
Into my darkened, hushed, safe casket
From which (I did not know)
I had already lost the treasure.
Now the storm center of it recedes into the distance
I can only be relieved that I’ve done it
The one factor that nobody
But quite close friends can comprehend
Is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality
In many of the most important ways
She’s the most gifted & capable
& admirable woman Ive ever met
But impossible for me to live married to
Now we’re separated were better friends
Than weve been since we first met
The main grief for me is that a life
That had all the circumstance for perfection
Should have been so intolerable
FITZROY ROAD (1963)
My body sank into the folk-tale
Where the wolves are singing in the forest
For two babes, who have turned, in their sleep
Beside the corpse of their mother
Life after Death
On monday morning at about 6am
Sylvia gassed herself
She asked me for help, as she often has
I was the only person who could have helped her
& the only person so jaded by her states
She seem’d to be getting in good shape
She was writing again
She was making enough money
Winning commissions & good reviews
Then a series of things, solictor’s letters, etc
Piled up, she flared up…
The doctor put her on heavy sedatives…
& in the gap between one pill & the next…
She turned on the oven
We didn’t find her – she found us.
She sniffed us out. The Fate she carried
Sniffed us out
And assembled us, inert ingrediaents
For its experiment.
As things are, it is bad for all of us.
If you come to me David suffers
If you go to him, you suffer
& does he stop suffering
I don’t see how it can make him happy again
Just to hand yourself over to him
As a prisoner or a body
Even against your will
I have concentrated all my life now
On these two children
& on what you & I might do
& you say you want nothing but that
So its up to you to act as you do feel
There’s no other way of solving this
TROUBLE AT MILL (1965)
She wanted the silent heraldry
Of the purple beach by the noble wall.
He wanted Cabala the ghetto demon
With its polythene bag full of ashes.
Sweetmouth, sweet little aseek, sweet love
Love sweetness & sweets
Now you are truly & wholly & entirely winningly better
Our evening on Primrose Hill
Should have been the norm
Not a freak occasion
On Thursday morning you were ready
To tell me to disappear
& on the Friday were so affectionate
All our difficulties blow up out of these long absences
& of your occasionally tactless doings
You’ll have to admit that
& out of mine sometimes
Everything with me is as it was Assia
ASSIA GASSES HERSELF (1969)
When her grave opened its ugly mouth
why didn’t you just fly,
Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge
to be identified
accused and convicted?
I’ve gone through these last weeks in a daze
Everything has become horrible to me
I cannot believe how I never knew
What was happening to her
Our life together was so complicated with old ghosts
But we belonged together so deeply & completely
That her repeatedly testing me
Saying that we’d better separate for good
Were just like a bad habit
I’m certain she did it on one of those crazy devlish moods
She didn’t even ring any of her friends
I feel my life now has gone completely empty
Assia was my true wife & the best friend I ever had
It was with me every minute of the day & night
Your own hands, stronger than your choked outcry,
Took your daughter from you. She was stripped from you,
The last raiment
Clinging round your neck, the sole remnant
Between you and the bed
In the underworld
Through this last ghastly year
I have lost every single battle
Im half inclined to suspect CROW (the figure of death)
The quicker I get it finished the better
Assia — I thought some atonement
Could be made for Sylvia
But this house made sure
We were dragged into the utmost nightmare
This last horror has maybe taught me one thing
Sylvia’s death thew my whole nature negative
I now see the senseless cost of that
For others as well as myself
& I must in some way set everything behind me
If I’m to carry on at all
Literary essays from a pilgrimage to Troy
With the world some weird kind of pagan ritual lockdown, I thought it a better time than most to head off the beaten tracks & go searching for the fabled burial mound of Achilles & his best pal, Patrocolus. Since Schliemann digging Troy out of Hisalrik Hill in the 19th Century, the idea that Achilles fought & died in the Troad moves from phantasy to possibilty – the next two stages are plausable & probable, but we’re not there yet. So, leaving rainy Edinburgh behind I caught a train to Burnley for a pleasant couple of weeks family time – the first in months with train after train from Edinburgh being cancelled on me. Then it was off to Manchester airport & a 6AM flight – I spent the overnighter chatting to a homeless guy who sleeps there, recently turfed out on the streets again about the same time medical staff were ordered to pay hospital parking again! Anyway, I’m leaving the UK to get away from all that, so off I tripped to Thessalonika on a plane full of mask-wearers. I stayed in the steep old town a couple of days – full of hundreds of street cats who apparently are fed by all & sundry & get routine visits from the vets. From there I went to Sithonia, the middle finger of the Chalkidki peninsular, with Mount Athos – the holy mountain – rising gloriously across the bay. I’d set off walking at 6.30 AM, at sunrise, & got as much as I could in while the sun wasn’t yet blazing – its reached the late thirties most of the week. There’s also a lot of blooming steep bits! Anyway, as soon as I’d get tired I’d settle at the nearest campsite – VouVouro was nice & also the latest one – Paradise Beach – a few k north of sea-girt Sitra, where I am writing this now over some strong double greek coffees & uploading the video below. Trust me, Paradise, is, well Paradise, & they even let me DJ on the beach after I imposed my audition on them – they were loving my skills! The video basically has me blethering on about a series of clues latent within Book 23 of the Iliad – Patroclus tear-stained funeral & mourning games – which give some interesting pointers for a would-be investigation into the site, being;
THE BEACHED SHIPS
‘The Acheans withdrew to the Hellespont’In recent years a theory has arisen that Besika Bay – to the west of Troy – is where the Greeks landed their ships. Homer clearly states it was to the north, by the Hellespont. Two stalwart contenders for the tomb have been the burial mounds of Kum Tepe & Kesik Tepe, both facing the Hellespont. However, archeaology at the sites has only ever gone back as far as the 6th Century BC, meaning the real tomb is out there, elsewhere.
THE TURNING STONESThere is a dead tree stump, an oak or a pine, rotted in the rain, & it is flanked by two white stones. The road narrows at this point, but the going is good on both sides of the monument, which either marks an ancient burial or must have been put up as a turning-post by people of an earlier age. Homer is here describing the mid-way point of a chariot race. The turning post will be long gone, of course, but the two white stones might well stand in the same spot still. Homer also describes the turning-point as being ‘far away on level ground,’ giving us further detail.
Antilochus, that veteran campaigner, saw a place where the sunken road grew narrow. It ran through a gulley…Between the beach & the turning point Homer is describing a narrowing of the road.
THE BARROW OF ILUSThere is one final clue found in Book 24, in which Priam goes to plead with Achilles to stop dragging his son Hektor’s body about & leaving it the dogs. On the way we learn that once the old king of Troy & Hermes (in disguise) ‘had driven past the great barrow of Ilus & stopped their mules & horses for a drink at the river.’ So that’s plenty of info to start visualizing what to look out for when I get to the area. Also helpful is the fact that the Bronze Age coastline was apparently much closer to Troy than it is today, making my job that little bit easier. I’ll also be studying the rest of the Iliad for my clues – I’m reading it backwards at the moment actually, I find the first few books a bit heavy & stifling, & I want to retain my excitement about the project, to be frank. I shall finish the first of my Aegean Edicts with a couple of sonnets from my time so far in Greece. In the morning I am heading to Alexandroplis & from there by ferry to the island of Samothrace, arriving at sunset & within spitting distance of the Troad. Its good timing really, the Greek government this week has gone mask crazy making folk wear them in hotels & hostels & all public space. I think a rugged island away from all the world’s worries is the best place to be right now.
There is a heat they call the burn of Greec Beginneth in July, by Autumn screams Out in the day we English pray for peace In shady spots as lava spurts & steams.
In the labyrinth of Saloniki Street cats handsomely treated as they prowl Door to friendly door thro sweet, unsneaky Hunts for meaty morsels; fresh, fair & foul.
Adventuring against the mid-day sun Sauntering slow slopes up to Genti Koyle Hat soak’d in sweat, what buenavista won, From Mount Olympus, between sea & soil
The coast drove east to Chalkidiki’s hand, Three-finger’d, into blue Aegean fann’d!
I found myself in Paradise a few K shy of Sarti I’d headed there solely beacuse it rhymes with ‘wild love party’ A wee secluded nudist beach with pyres of burnish’d driftwood So thought I’d stay a gracious while as Thracian poets should Across the soft, Singitic Gulf Mount Athos rose redeeimng All souls who gazed upon its point immortally updreaming As monkish men swam out to heaven seven times a day Libating skinsalt to exalted Thetis in the spray I gazed on Aphrodite & I swoon’d before Athean & then I saw Cassandra I’ll die happy cos I seen her; The infinite projectison of her body set me blushing Into a catacoombe of lust, libido wolves uprushing, Then in the rockshade softening I drank my surf-cool wine Watching Cassandra frolicing, voluptuous, divine.
Continuing the selection from William Dolby’s
Majestic translations of ancient Chinese poetry
His hunting dogs’ bells jingle
He himself is handsome & moreover gentle
His hunting dogs have double rings,
He himself is handsome & moreover has good-looking hair;
His hunting dogs have big doubkle chains,
He himself is handsome & moreover strong in ability
RIVER FEN STAGNATED INTO MARSH
Where yon River Fen has stagnated into swamp
Oh, I pick the flaxen plant
That young gentleman there is immerasurably handsome
Quite different from the minister’s bastard-sons in charge of the duke’s carriages
In one area by yon River Fen,
Oh, I pick the mulberry-leaves.
That young gentleman there is as handsome as amethyst
He’s as handsome as amethyst
Quite different from the men in charge of the duke’s war chariots
DAWN BREEZE FALCON
Swift-flying is yon Dawn Breeze Falcon
& luxuriant is yon North Forest;
I haven’t met my young lord, my beau
And my troubl’d heart frets unable to forget him
What can I do? What can I do?
You’re truly so very forgetful of me.
On the mountain there are lush-bushy ioaks
In the damp hollow there are mottl’d camphor trees,
I haven’t yet met my young lord, my beau,
& my troubl’d heart is joyless.
What can I do? What can I do?
You’re truly so very forgetful of me.
On the mountain there are lush-bushy Prunus-Japanica trees
In the damp hollow there are sui-trees
I haven’t yet met my young lord, my beau,
& my troubl’d heart is as if drunk
What can I do? What can I do?
You’re truly so very forgetful of me.
WHITE ELMS AT THE EAST GATE
White elms at the East Gate
Oaks upon hill-on-hill Hill
The young gentlemen of the Tzu-chung clan,
Whirl around in dance at the foot of the helm
They’re choosing a fine morning;
On the plain of the southern region;
They’re not twisting their hemp thread,
They’re whirling in dance in the market-place
They’re going off ona fine morning,
Ah, they stride along together;
“We regard you as high-mallow flowers,”
They give us gifts of a fistful of pepper-plants
WILLOW BY THE EAST GATE
The willow by the east gate
Its leaves are so sleek & lush
We fixed the date fotr dusk
But now the dawn star, Venus, is dazzling shimmering
The willow by the east gate
Its leaves are sio luxuriant
We fixed a date for dusk
But now the dawn star, Venus, is sparkling splendid
SLOPING SIDE OF THE MARSH EMBANKMENT
By the aloping side of that marsh’s embankment
There are cattails & lotus-plants;
There’s a certain handsome man,
In my grief what can I do about him?
Waking or sleeping abed, I can’t do anything about it,
My sobs & snivel pour down like heavy rain
By the sloping side of that marsh’s embankment
There are cattails & fragrant thoroughworts;
There’s a certain handsome man,
Mighty big & moreover lissome fair
On the 75th anniversary of the death of John Jarmain, let us celebrate the immortal voices of two of our most cerebally gritty War Poets
O send me great opponents! Day by day
The precious hours like vacant windows passed,
The petty vision & the soft delay.
These bring defeat & rust the sword we bear,
Diminish each bright purpose, till at last
All’s wasted, & the heart’s too dull to care.
On the 26th of this month it shall be seventy-five years exactly since the death of Major John Jarmain, killed-in-action in Normandy during the Allied reconquista of France. The major was a poet, & his death took place at Ste Honorine in Chardonnerette, a commune celebrated before the war as the most beautiful in the Calvados. His second-in-command at the time, John Paul Kaestlin, described the shared loss of one of English poetry’s succinctly sublime stars, at the tender age of 33.
I was awakened at 5 in the morning by his batman in a state of obvious agitation. The major had been hurt; he thought seriously. They had left together at 4 o’clock in his jeep. All was perfectly quiet as they drove over the crest & down the long incline to Honorine; but, as luck would have it, on arrival at the village they found the tanks still moving out into position. The noise had attracted the Hun & a mortar concentration had come over as they reached & were held up at the cross-roads. Jarmain, walking, had dived for a slit-trench by the roadside. He never got there. I got down to Honorine as fast as I could make it. By now, however, it was fully light, & I had to walk most of the way. When I got there he had been dead for some time, & there had evidently been no hope. A piece of shrapnel had entered the base of the skull & he had died, while being evacuated, without regaining consciousness.
Jarmain was buried in the 6th Airborne Cemetery at Ranville. He has been remembered since as a leader, a hero & also a poet of the purest calibre. He left the world a desperately slender collection, among which stand poems that should rank alongside those of Owen & Sassoon among those memorials from the front-line that present an unmisted eyeglass into what it was like to actually fight in those terrible two World Wars of the early 20th Century. For the Great War Poets, especially after 1917, war poetry was all about recording the awful bloodshed & senseless loss of life; when death flew over a battlefield in a thousand & one ways to ravage & maim- the sonic boom of a shrapnel shell was one, turning insides to jelly just before they are pierced by hundred slices of jagged iron hurtling through them at 7000 miles an hour. Asphyxiation is another, gripped by the throat by the fierce hands of an enemy soldier whose bullets had all been spent, & whose bayonet had snapped. By Jarmain’s poetry, the blood and guts had been replaced by a pathos even more effective at touching the reader’s spirit.
Men prove their purpose, in the dangerous hour,
Their brief excelling brilliance is disclosed:
When threatened most the soul puts forth its flower
Jarmain’s poetry flourished in the North African desert, distilling his experiences in the gaps between battle to the light of a doover’s candle. These magical lines were then sent back to England in numbered airmail letters to his wife. He served in the Eighth Army, with the 51st Highland Division, in whose ranks was a Scottish intelligence officer called Hamish Henderson. Jarmain would have attended Henderson’s lectures & briefings, but what they talked about together is unknown to us. We possess no Edward Trelawney here, jotting down the conversations of Byron & Shelley in Pisa, but what we do know is that Jarmain & Henderson are two supremely talented poets, whose works concerning the Desert War are priceless gems in the treasury of English poetry.
In John Jarmain’s work, the mud of the Somme is replaced by desert landscape. Jarmain becomes a connoisseur of sand as he studies its shapes and shifting colours under different climatic conditions
Professor Tim Kendall
Poetically, one can really feel the Italian influence in the anima of Jarmain – he had visited the country many times & spoke near fluent Italian. He also produced one novel in his brief lifetime, Priddy Barrows, published by Collins in the year of his death. If novels are an oblique window into an author’s mind, then the following passage could tell us all we need to know about Jarmain’s personality.
I don’t think he could explain himself, in fact I’m sure he couldn’t. I don’t believe he knows himself why he does as he does. But I’m perfectly sure that once he’s said he’ll do a thing he’ll do it, & no one on earth will stop him. He’s queer.
The best way to appreciate Jarmain is through James Crowden’s 2012 book, Flowers in the Minefields, which places a delicious biograph alongside the poems, with the whole being perfectly embellished by photographs, commentaries & contemporaneous biographical material. The overall experience of the book is like finding the body of a dead soldier blown apart by a land-mine, & putting the pieces back together in the most human – well Frankenstinian – way possible.
Among Jarmain’s poetical offerings, twelve poems in particular stand out as a momentous record of the soldier’s experience. Henderson is different, he survived the war & lived a long life, but it is in his war poetry that his best writings lie. There are two streams flowing from Henderson’s craft; his ballads were on the lips of every soldiers’ singing, especially one composed for the Christmas celebrations in Cairo, 1942, a skit on the ruling house of Egypt & the corrupt British colonial administration that supported it. Sung to the national anthem of Egypt, the Allied soldiers picked it up with fervent enthusiasm, & despite the phraseology appearing wildly ridiculous (&unprintable) to we 21st centuryites, it retains for erudite posterity the vernacular of the time, of how the soldiers communicated with words. Another ballad was the indignantly brilliant ‘Ballad of the D-Day Dodgers,’ composed in response to a condescending remark by Lady Astor about troops on the Mediterranean front. In an insane speech, she had suggested that those soldiers who were bogged down by the mountain fighting in Italy were in some way avoiding the invasion of Normandy.
We’re the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy –
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
8th Army scroungers and their tanks
We live in Rome – among the yanks.
We are the D-Day Dodgers, way out in Italy…
Naple and Cassino were taken in our stride,
We didn’t go to fight there – we went there for the ride.
Anzio and Sango were just names
We only went there to look for dames –
The artful D Day-Dodgers, way out in Italy
Henderson’s ‘Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica,’ begun fragmentedly in Autumn 1942 & published in 1947, was his tribute to the war in North Africa. Composed in gluts within such recollective moments as when pole-axed by dysentery, the Eelgies are full of compassion for the victimisation of ordinary soldiers, constantly bubbling with an unvisceral, yet emotional truth. When the Elegies are lain beside Jarmain’s poetry, the comblended whole forms a concise reflection of what it was truly like to fight in the desert, a colourful diaspora of experiences to colour in the gaps on those grainy black & white cinereels from the 1940s. By cherry-picking the best of these – sometimes in passages, sometimes whole poems – & laying them by Jarmain’s sublime dozen, we may create the most valuable of poetical testaments to war, composed by the last of those to experience men murdering men on an industrial scale.
I’ve walked this brazen clanging path
In flesh’s brittle arrogance
To chance the simple hazard, death,
Regretting only this, my rash
Ambitious wish in verse to write
A true & valued testament.
Among Henderson’s Elegies, his 7th, Seven Good Germans discusses the backgrounds of enemy soldiers, those ‘seven poor bastards,‘ buried in the desert. The title bounces with deepest irony off the shadowy barrack-proverb, ‘the only good German is a dead one,‘ & Henderson yanks the humanity out of the indifferences of slaughter with such awesome poetry as;
The third had been a farm-hand in the March of Silesia
& had come to the desert as fresh fodder for machine guns
His dates are inscribed on the files, & on the cross-piece
Henderson had found it hard to get this particular poem published in the stuffy literary environs of the ‘Cairo Cage’ & the Salamander Oasis magazine. ‘My Elegy for the German Dead,’ he wrote in a letter to John Spiers, Spring 1943, ‘has been turned down by the Cairo censor – so I hear – from the editors of Orientations, because such morbid writings have a depressing effect on troops! What a laugh. However, it may be more expedient in every way to publish it after the war.’ That Henderson was kept out of the magazines shows how much his work really matters – for the truth suppressed is the greatest truth of all. Of his refusal to bend to the literary conventions of the day, Henderson scribbled a cutting paragraph is his personal copy of Orientations for May 1942.
When I gave them poetry that was neither Audenry nor Spenderish but coarse, sensual, numinous & song-like, acknowledging as influences Lorca, Heine, Clare, Dunbar & Burns & drawing much vigour from my association with Scots & Irish working class people, they squealed & scooted
Towards the end of the summer of 1942, General Bernard Montgomery arrived in North Africa to take command of the Eighth Army. Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox,’ had been running rampant all over the desert, but would be finally stopped in late October by the British & Commonwealth troops in a furious, world-hinging battle named after an obscure train station 40 miles from Cairo – El Alamein. The 51st Highland Division fought in the battle, & it is in the terrifying white heat of its slaughter that the English poet Jarmain & the Scottish makar Henderson became, one would say, true poets of war.
There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.
Jarmain was certainly ready to compose war poetry, for he had gone to school in Shrewsbury Owenlike Wilfred twenty years before him. A deep part of Jarmain’s spirit was aware of both his ability & sensibility to match that genius-bard of the Great War. Time, it seemed, had randomly chosen the period of his poetry’s burgeoning in which to enact a new great slaughter. Time had called him to be a witness poet, whose moral responsibility to speak for the dead would transpose into words, with articulate beauty, the brutality & discordance of war. He – & Hamish Henderson of course – now had a dual duty; to fight for the country & to sing for its dead!
I have read the poems with real interest & mounting admiration
Professor Jon Stallworthy
“If I must die, forget these hands of mine / That touched your body into tiny flames,” were two staggeringly authentic lines composed by Jarmain to his second wife, Beryl, in early 1939. In them we have this poet’s encapsulation – he would wear the tradition (Brooke’s ‘If I should die, think only this of me’) of the art, while carving his own beauties in the rock.
Let us now look focus on one moment in the historiography of the two poets; at certain poems, passages of poems & the odd bit of prose which tell a small sliver of the story of that famous battle at Alamein, fought in furnace heat, which prevented the Nazi flag being draped over the pyramids.
Opening of an Offensive
(a) the waiting
Armour has foregathered, snuffling
through tourbillions of fine dust.
The crews don’t speak much. They’ve had
last brew-up before battle. The tawny
deadland lies in silence
not yet smashed by salvoes.
No sound reaches us
from the African constellations.
The low ridge is too quiet.
But no fear we’re sleeping,
no need to remind us
that the nervous fingers of the searchlights
are nearly meeting & time is flickering
& this I think in a few minutes
while the whole power crouches for the spring.
X-20 in thirty seconds. Then begin
(b) the barrage
Henderson describes the intense bombardment of the German lines which marked the opening of the battle, an epic moment in which minute details would embed themselves into his receptive psyche. For Henderson, the sight of two searchlights crossing in the skies at the start of the battle evoked the saltire of Saint Andrew, & gave the 51st an almost hallowed role in the battle. Henderson would actually be wounded, leaping into a slit trench to avoid a stuka attack, a momentary dashing which damaged ligaments & vertebrae to plague him through the rest of his life. Another Scottish poet was also wounded at Alamein, Sorley Maclean, blown 30 feet through the air by a landmine going off in his vicinity. He was wounded in the leg and broke several bones in his feet, but would survive to become one of Scotland’s greatest 20th century poets.
Whatever his desire of mishap,
his innocence or malignity,
he showed no pleasure in his death
below the Ruweisat Ridge.
A bombadier during the battle, F.E. Hughes, submitted the following piece to a title called ‘Poems from the Desert,’ a World War II anthology of Eighth Army poems of which Monty introduced as compsed, ‘at the very time that the Desert Army was wholly engaged in hitting Rommel & all his forces “Right out of Africa for Six.”
There’s a Devil in the dawn –
Horrific spawn of last night’s hideous moon,
That hung above the gun’s inferno
And smiled on men who died too soon.
There’s a Devil in the dawn –
See him fawn on those who served him well,
Who, blinded, deafened, breathed the cordite reek,
Fed the ravening guns, and swore that it was hell.
The Devil will demand his pay
In blood to-day; but those who pass in sunlight will
not see the Moon
Serenely light a desert hell for men who live
And smile on those who die too soon.
The next brief masterpiece of a poem, ‘At a War Grave,’ was composed by Jarmain towards the very end of the battle, after visiting the grave of his good friend Ebenezer Ell, slain by an 88 shell.
No grave is rich, the dust that herein lies
Beneath this white cross mixing with the sand
Was vital once, with skill of eye and hand
And speed of brain. These will not re-arise
These riches, nor will they be replaced;
They are lost and nothing now, and here is left
Only a worthless corpse of sense bereft,
Symbol of death, and sacrifice and waste.
An even greater friend of Ebenezer Lee was Harry Garrett, a sergeant in the 51st Highland Division, who experienced the horror of seeing Ebenezer blown to bits beside during the battle. This near-miss was one of many which earned him the nickname, ‘Lucky Harry,’ among whose charming, grounded verses we may read;
I knew that death is but a door.
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed,
A kinder world, a cleaner breed.
I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man, and nothing more.
But – God of strength and gentleness,
Be pleased to make me nothing less.
Help me, O God, when Death is near
To mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall – if fall I must –
My soul may triumph in the Dust.
From the general wastings of life through war, the emotional explosions of Jarmain & Henderson have flown from the desert into eternity. Among them stands Jarmain’s rightfully widely-anthologized poem, El Alamein. It was composed 5 months after the events described, during a different battle, the mauling at Mareth in Tunisia. In an essay contained in Crowden’s book, by a battery captian called Joe Dean, we can see the poem being composed;
I remember an evening during the battle of Mareth when by the light of his parrafin lamp he was struggling with a poem on the battle of Alamein
One expects that the shock of Alamein had subsided, leaving fresh memories encrusting in his creative storehouses. It would only take the sounds of battle to shake them from their beds.
There are flowers now, they say, at Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene,
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow –
Flowers, and nothing that we know.
So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,
Bells which we could not hear:
And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,
That name of loss and pride, El Alamein?
– Not the murk and harm of war,
But their hope, their own warm prayer.
It will become a staid historic name,
That crazy sea of sand!
Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame
Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,
On us a fleck of glory to the end:
And there our dead will keep their holy ground.
But this is not the place that we recall,
The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,
The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,
The grey-faced men, sand powdered over all;
The tanks, the guns, the trucks,
The black, dark-smoking wrecks.
So be it: none but us has known that land:
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
Others will come who cannot understand,
Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires
And find there – flowers.
I shall leave this essay with one final poem, which blew anonymously into a slit trench at El Afhelia during a heavy bombardment. It was only a couple of weeks after El Alamein, the Desert Fox & his Afrika Korps were still visciously snarling like a freshly wounded lion. It appeared as the closing piece in the ‘Poems from the Desert’ anthology.
A Soldier—His Prayer
Stay with me, God. The night is dark,
The night is cold: my little spark
Of courage dies. The night is long;
Be with me God, and make me strong.
I love a game; I love a fight.
I hate the dark; I love the light.
I love my child; I love my wife.
I am no coward. I love Life,
Life with its change of mood and shade.
I want to live. I’m not afraid,
But me and mine are hard to part;
Oh, unknown God, lift up my heart.
You stilled the waters at Dunkirk
And saved Your servants. All Your work
Is wonderful, dear God. You strode
Before us down that dreadful road.
We were alone, and hope had fled;
We loved our country and our dead.
And could not shame them; so we stayed
The course and were not much afraid.
Dear God that nightmare road! And then
That sea! We got there—we were men.
My eyes were blind, my feet were torn,
My soul sang like a bird at dawn.
I knew that death is but a door.
I knew what we were fighting for:
Peace for the kids, our brothers freed,
A kinder world, a cleaner breed.
I’m but the son my mother bore,
A simple man, and nothing more.
But—God of strength and gentleness,
Be pleased to make me nothing less.
Help me, O God, when Death is near
to mock the haggard face of fear,
That when I fall—if fall I must—
My soul may triumph in the Dust.
John Jarmaine & Hamish Henderson are two blooms of the same plant, a sweet-smelling desert asphodel whose wafting fragrance touches the souls of all who near it. Away from the sands, Henderson lived a long & fruitful life, reinigorating the Scottish folk music tradition & embellishing his nation’s striving for independence with his poetical insight. Jarmaine was not so lucky, but it in his posthomous life that still speaks to us all. In 2013, a cache of 150 letters written by Jarmain to Beryl hwas discovered in a family bureau. In them we see the originals of his poems, & also his voice as a man, who described his situation in the desert as being one with, “everything liberally sprinkled and intermixed with sand. Can you picture it all?” These letters can only serve to give the future a much wider insight to the one that we have to hand. James Crowden’s book is an excellent start, but I am sure as the decades & centuries flow by, that every word written by Jarmain’s hand will take on some form of quasi-religious status as we look back on one of the last true poets of the ‘archaic’ human dispensity for mass, murderous warfare.
BUY THE BOOKS
Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica
Flowers in the Minefields
Continuing a series of classic essays on literature. This month sees one of the greatest Victoria poets pontificate upon the poetic art – originally published as the introduction to T. H. Ward’s anthology, The English Poets (1880)…
The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.
If we conceive thus highly of the destinies of poetry, we must also set our standard for poetry high, since poetry, to be capable of fulfilling such high destinies, must be poetry of a high order of excellence. For in poetry the distinction between excellent and inferior, sound and unsound or only half-sound, true and untrue or only half-true, is of paramount importance. It is of paramount importance because of the high destinies of poetry.
The best poetry is what we want; the best poetry will be found to have a power of forming, sustaining, and delighting us, as nothing else can. A clearer, deeper sense of the best in poetry, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, is the most precious benefit which we can gather from a poetical collection such as the present. And yet in the very nature and conduct of such a collection there is inevitably something which tends to obscure in us the consciousness of what our benefit should be, and to distract us from the pursuit of it. We should therefore steadily set it before our minds at the outset, and should compel ourselves to revert constantly to the thought of it as we proceed.
Yes; constantly in reading poetry, a sense for the best, the really excellent, and of the strength and joy to be drawn from it, should be present in our minds and should govern our estimate of what we read. But this real estimate, the only true one, is liable to be superseded, if we are not watchful, by two other kinds of estimate, the historic estimate and the personal estimate, both of which are fallacious. A poet or a poem may count to us historically, they may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves, and they may count to us really. They may count to us historically. The course of development of a nation’s language, thought, and poetry, is profoundly interesting; and by regarding a poet’s work as a stage in this course of development we may easily bring ourselves to make it of more importance as poetry than in itself it really is, we may come to use a language of quite exaggerated praise in criticising it; in short, to overrate it. So arises in our poetic judgments the fallacy caused by the estimate which we may call historic. Then, again, a poet or poem may count to us on grounds personal to ourselves. Our personal affinities, likings and circumstances, have great power to sway our estimate of this or that poet’s work, and to make us attach more importance to it as poetry than in itself it really possesses, because to us it is, or has been, of high importance. Here also we overrate the object of our interest, and apply to it a language of praise which is quite exaggerated. And thus we get the source of a second fallacy in our poetic judgments—the fallacy caused by an estimate which we may call personal.
Both fallacies are natural. It is evident how naturally the study of the history and development of poetry may incline a man to pause over reputations and works once conspicuous but now obscure, and to quarrel with a careless public for skipping, in obedience to mere tradition and habit, from one famous name or work in its national poetry to another, ignorant of what it misses, and of the reason for keeping what it keeps, and of the whole process of growth in its poetry. The French have become diligent students of their own early poetry, which they long neglected; the study makes many of them dissatisfied with their so-called classical poetry, the court-tragedy of the seventeenth century, a poetry which Pellisson long ago reproached with its want of the true poetic stamp, with its politesse stérile et rampante [sterile and bombastic politeness—ed.], but which nevertheless has reigned in France as absolutely as if it had been the perfection of classical poetry indeed. The dissatisfaction is natural; yet a lively and accomplished critic, M. Charles d’Héricault, the editor of Clément Marot, goes too far when he says that “the cloud of glory playing round a classic is a mist as dangerous to the future of a literature as it is intolerable for the purposes of history.” “It hinders,” he goes on, “it hinders us from seeing more than one single point, the culminating and exceptional point; the summary, fictitious and arbitrary, of a thought and of a work. It substitutes a halo for a physiognomy, it puts a statue where there was once a man, and hiding from us all trace of the labour, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures, it claims not study but veneration; it does not show us how the thing is done, it imposes upon us a model. Above all, for the historian this creation of classic personages is inadmissible; for it withdraws the poet from his time, from his proper life, it breaks historical relationships, it blinds criticism by conventional admiration, and renders the investigation of literary origins unacceptable. It gives us a human personage no longer but a God seated immovable amidst His perfect work, like Jupiter on Olympus; and hardly will it be possible for the young student to whom such work is exhibited at such a distance from him, to believe that it did not issue ready—made from that divine head.”
All this is brilliantly and tellingly said, but we must plead for a distinction. Everything depends on the reality of a poet’s classic character. If he is a dubious classic, let us sift him; if he is a false classic, let us explode him. But if he is a real classic, if his work belongs to the class of the very best (for this is the true and right meaning of the word classic, classical), then the great thing for us is to feel and enjoy his work as deeply as ever we can, and to appreciate the wide difference between it and all work which has not the same high character. This is what is salutary, this is what is formative; this is the great benefit to be got from the study of poetry. Everything which interferes with it, which hinders it, is injurious. True, we must read our classic with open eyes, and not with eyes blinded with superstition; we must perceive when his work comes short, when it drops out of the class of the very best, and we must rate it, in such cases, at its proper value. But the use of this negative criticism is not in itself, it is entirely in its enabling us to have a clearer sense and a deeper enjoyment of what is truly excellent. To trace the labour, the attempts, the weaknesses, the failures of a genuine classic, to acquaint oneself with his time and his life and his historical relationships, is mere literary dilettantism unless it has that clear sense and deeper enjoyment for its end. It may be said that the more we know about a classic the better we shall enjoy him; and, if we lived as long as Methuselah and had all of us heads of perfect clearness and wills of perfect steadfastness, this might be true in fact as it is plausible in theory. But the case here is much the same as the case with the Greek and Latin studies of our schoolboys. The elaborate philological groundwork which we require them to lay is in theory an admirable preparation for appreciating the Greek and Latin authors worthily. The more thoroughly we lay the groundwork, the better we shall be able, it may be said, to enjoy the authors. True, if time were not so short, and schoolboys wits not so soon tired and their power of attention exhausted; only, as it is, the elaborate philological preparation goes on, but the authors are little known and less enjoyed. So with the investigator of “historic origins” in poetry. He ought to enjoy the true classic all the better for his investigations; he often is distracted from the enjoyment of the best, and with the less good he overbusies himself, and is prone to over-rate it in proportion to the trouble which it has cost him.
The idea of tracing historic origins and historical relationships cannot be absent from a compilation like the present. And naturally the poets to be exhibited in it will be assigned to those persons for exhibition who are known to prize them highly, rather than to those who have no special inclination towards them. Moreover, the very occupation with an author, and the business of exhibiting him, disposes us to affirm and amplify his importance. In the present work, therefore, we are sure of frequent temptation to adopt the historic estimate, or the personal estimate, and to forget the real estimate; which latter, nevertheless, we must employ if we are to make poetry yield us its full benefit. So high is that benefit, the benefit of clearly feeling and of deeply enjoying the really excellent, the truly classic in poetry, that we do well, I say, to set it fixedly before our minds as our object in studying poets and poetry, and to make the desire of attaining it the one principle to which, as the Imitation says, whatever we may read or come to know, we always return.
At any rate the end to which the method and the estimate are designed to lead, and from leading to which, if they do lead to it, they get their whole value,—the benefit of being able clearly to feel and deeply to enjoy the best, the truly classic, in poetry,—is an end, let me say it once more at parting, of supreme importance. We are often told that an era is opening in which we are to see multitudes of a common sort of readers, and masses of a common sort of literature; that such readers do not want and could not relish anything better than such literature, and that to provide it is becoming a vast and profitable industry. Even if good literature entirely lost currency with the world, it would still be abundantly worth while to continue to enjoy it by oneself. But it never will lose currency with the world, in spite of monetary appearances; it never will lose supremacy. Currency and supremacy are insured to it, not indeed by the world’s deliberate and conscious choice, but by something far deeper,—by the instinct of self-preservation in humanity.
The essay continues with a historical survey upon famous poets
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StAnza International Poetry Festival
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Harry Baker (8th March)
‘Poetry Café’, featuring Ben Norris (9th March)
Studio Theatre, The Byre Theatre, St Andrews
I’ve decided to roll two reviews into one, because in many ways the ‘Poetry Café’ experience at StAnza is of-a-piece. For example, your ticket entitles you to a drink, and a pie by Stuarts of Buckhaven – you get a choice between macaroni, scotch, steak-and-ale, and chicken curry, and believe me, they deliver more pie for your peso! The chicken curry pies are insanely delicious and, without fail, I’m in danger of regarding the poetry as an afterthought. You get a comfy armchair too.
However, the good folk at Stanza have a knack of picking poets for the Café that they know will deliver on a par with the pies. On the two occasions I was there this year, for example, they put up two Slam Champions for us. First up, on the Friday was Harry Baker, at one time the youngest ever World Poetry Slam Champion. The other amazing fact about him is that he is a mathematician, though really I don’t know why that should be amazing – the juxtaposition of poet and mathematician – because a love of numbers and patterns can manifest itself in both disciplines. In Harry’s case, it can result in poems that are actually about prime numbers. Equally it can result in alliterative displays about proper pop-up purple paper people.
Harry Baker delivers, somehow, with the air of a boy in Year 10, but a very clever boy. If he were wearing a blazer you would want to hate him, but you wouldn’t be able to, because not only would he be too clever he would also be too damn funny. You would let him hang out with you and the rest of the kids who think that school in uncool, he would take a sip of Relentless and say “Bloody hell, that’s strong,” and proceed to tell you the percentages of the ingredients, and then multiply the calories by the number of minutes in a week. He, and only he, could compose a poem about the number of birthdays there are every day, or how many hours he has been alive, or could say that ten thousand days equals 27.39726 years, unless you’re talking binary, and then it’s sixteen.
A panel of five random French people crowned him champion, true, but there is one thing that worries me rather than delights me in his delivery. He has a tendency to let his voice die away at the end of lines or phrases, to the extent that sometimes, regardless of the mic, one can lose an important word and thus fail to succumb to the force of the slam. High point, though, was the poem in which he taught us a brand new word in German: Falafellöffel. As I said to him afterwards, “Das war ausgezeichnet!”
Two slammers means more of the same, right? Wrong. For a start, have you ever had this nagging feeling that you recognise someone’s voice? That’s how it was with Ben Norris. “Who the heck is this bloke?” I kept asking myself. It turns out he plays Ben Archer in BBC Radio4’s The Archers. StAnza sure know how to pick someone for a middle-class, middle-aged audience!
Ben Norris is not as outright funny as Harry Baker, but then he doesn’t need to be and doesn’t try to be. Twenty minutes of his performance was dedicated not to a poem, but to a short story written from the point of view of a young man visiting his gran, who is hospitalised and in the grip of senile dementia. It is written in a style, and was delivered in a style, that demanded and held attention. For most of it the story had a solidity and a flow; towards the end it became more fragmented, but for the listener that was the part which reminded us that Ben is a poet, its fragments signaled ideas, breaths, images.
A Poetry Café performance, you see, does not need to be funny. As Ben launched into a series of poems about the time when his parents split up, and he learned that his mother had been having an affair that lasted six years, he told us there was no need to applaud. And indeed, they were moving, intense, and personal, so we didn’t. Not that they were full of angst or resentment – though he did refer to them as the poems he wouldn’t recite to his family – indeed the poem dedicated to his father’s subsequent partner, Sue, was a work of dedication and appreciation. Strangely enough, this was probably the point in the performance where the majority of the laughs came, if only because Ben forgot the opening words of the poem – ‘The Only Ethnic Minority Dentist in Boston, Lincs’ – and decided to do the millennial thing of reading it all off his phone. And why not. Hand-held devices are now part of the performance poet’s natural toolkit.
It’s marginal which of these two poetry lunches I liked best. I liked them both, I loved the poetry, I warmed to the poets. Ben, by a whisker, though. People slightly ahead of numbers. But do appreciate these two guys, and if either comes to your town, give him a look-see and a listen-hear.