Irredeemable East coast, light fading, warmth leaching out of the fabric of things as flat as the grey light and the grey North Sea, where the light is light that’s left behind, a used-up earlier light, the sun up and out of the sluggish sea and out of the east, leaving all the mud and shale, the suspended silt of cities, and the run-off of endless fields and darkening wolds, this soup, this dirty laundry rinsing, this used up stuff.
An apology for this is long overdue. I can’t even bear to type it with its original line breaks. I want to say sorry to poet Sally Goldsmith, on whom I inflicted it at a writers’ workshop. In mitigation, if mitigation there be, I should say I wrote it after a particularly miserable day in Arbroath with the dull queasiness of a hangover. There can be few more dispiriting places in March – sunless and dour, in its streets of blankfaced dark sandstone terraces that suck the light out of the air, and its wind-dragged shore and its sullen sea. Not even the pink and lemon and peppermint pastel-painted houses by the marina could redeem that day.
I must have felt bad. I lived for six years between Redcar and Saltburn in a house that looked over fields to the sea, and the buttress of Hunt Cliff , and a short busride from miles of clean sand. I lived with the skies that painters like Len Tabner and Peter Hicks make music and poetry from. The fantastic light that comes with sunset in the fume of steel works and the science fiction pipework of ICI, and the opera of light that comes from a sun that drops behind the pure line of moorland horizons. For four years I lived a short drive from Tynemouth and Whitley Bay (which, to be honest, can be out-of-season- depressing) but not that far from Dunstanburgh and Seahouses.
I wrote this a good while ago. Presumably not hungover and glum. You can’t feel glum on the Northumberland coast.
‘At Dunstanburgh the sand is white,
the sea so pure, so antiseptic clean
it hurts your teeth, a bowl of blades,
blue steel; the gannets dive and crash;
they fold their wings like paper bags
and smash the ocean into shards of glass,
grab gill and scale and herring muscle into air,
into a shocking sky as big as everywhere.’
There’s a lot of it, the east coast of England and Scotland, and while some it is undoubtedly dingy and grim (Withernsea is my idea of one of the circles of Hell, and Skegness, too. Sorry. I know it’s so bracing. It’s also made up of 20 million static caravans) most is wonderful. Spurn is wild and alien, Bempton Cliffs are stunning, and so is Holy Island, and….well. Choose your favourites. So sorry, east coast. Because you don’t exist as an entity. You’re a million particularities. One of which is Whitby, which eventually will bring me round to one of the poems I asked for from today’s (un)discovered gem.
This week, I’m delighted to introduce Roy Cockcroft. I met Roy in 1975 when I became Head of English at Boston Spa Comp. in Yorkshire. The late 60’s were a heady time to be a young teacher. The move to comprehensive schools opened up undreamed-of possibilities for us. After 5 years I was an acting H0D in Middlesbrough (see (un)discovered gem Andy Blackford), and then a senior lecturer in a College of Ed. in Newcastle for 4 years. They were heady days for English teaching, too. I met and came under the spell of Harold Rosen, John Dixon, Tony Burgess, Nancy Martin and all the London teachers they inspired, like the English Dept at Hackney Downs .. Ken Worpole, in particular. I joined NATE. I went to conferences. I believed we would change the world for ever. Then I went to Boston and learned I didn’t have a clue, particularly about what it means to be a head of department. I learned the hard way that I had everything to learn. What kept me afloat was the fact that Roy, then just starting his second year of teaching, seemed to believe in what I was trying to do, even if I didn’t really know what it was. I don’t know if he knows that he kept me sane in those first couple of years. Well, he does now. Thanks, Roy.
I’ll say a little more about what he taught me as a teacher, and then leave him and his poems to speak for themselves. Roy gradually moved to specialise as a drama teacher. It’s hard to describe his style. It’s quiet, organised, unobtrusive…very much in the (apparently) understated style of Dorothy Heathcote, who I admired and could never emulate. His planning was always immaculate, and the way he could create that belief in the drama that drew his students in was something to see. We taught as a pair for a time, and he would never tell me what my role would be until about 2 minutes before the session started. He taught me what belief in role is like, not least when my role turned out to be a quadraplegic who could only communicate by a widening of the eyes. I was not allowed to blink assent. It’s the longest I’ve ever been silent. After I moved on to become an English Advisor, he went on to become a head of drama in Norfolk. Lucky Norfolk, I say. This is what he says about himself:
Leeds 1961. Time stagnating like a blocked sink. Above the dismal ranks of terraced streets and the grey smoke and the clouds dripping like an old dishcloth, Yuri Gagarin is orbiting the earth, finding no evidence of God in the ionosphere, replacing God, creating a new universe, demanding a new mythology. In one of those drab streets a boy sets himself the task of describing that universe, of painting a new mythology. He begins with a new torch. He casts a planetarium of shadows on his bedroom wall – snakes, elephants, rabbits, swans, and a spouting whale. After the interruptions of secondary education, university, and thirty-two years of teaching, he resumes the task, picking up his pen, writing poetry, daubing canvasses with paint, trying to remember where he left off.
And this is what the Driffield Post Times said about him a few years ago. ‘Roy Cockcroft, from Langtoft, was awarded the Elmet Poetry Prize at a ceremony held in Mytholmroyd….on Friday. Roy.. was awarded a £300 first prize for his efforts……the competition was judged by Ted Hughes’ daughter, Frieda…and based on the theme of Remains’. Pow! Which will now take us to Whitby by circuitous ways. And the winning poem.
Here on the east coast
when the sea had given up its claim
on their inheritance,
the mothers and wives wanted their men back,
to dry out under their own rafters.
So, when a coble sank with all hands,
the cold waves would see to it,
returning the dead to their own shores,
leaving them out for close inspection
on familiar sand.
And then, if the corpse was known,
a grave could be dug in the churchyard’s fathoms —
a small berth
sheltered from the wind,
anchored in the swell of the mourning parish
by a slab of stone.
the tides would hold them back for weeks;
currents would swim them up and down the coast
till they were miles from home.
Strangers would wash up on the beach,
men that might be kin, or might not,
except that under their pale skin
all drowned mariners are spliced in the blood
with the shawled mother standing on the quay.
So, to sort Withernsea from Bridlington,
the women turned to worsted and to hefty needles,
clacking post-codes into ganseys,
thinking the shroud in to the wool,
teaching their own blend of rib and cable
to the black-fingered girls.
How their thick ply foiled the sea’s sick game.
Now the draggled fleece on the shingle
had a name. Now the shore-crabs and the gulls
might strip men to the bone,
but never pick the parish records
from their plains and purls.
No wonder it won. There are lines and phrases that make me catch my breath….the housewifely simple unspeakable wish of ‘mothers and wives who wanted their men back/to dry out under their own rafters’ and the wives and mothers ‘thinking the shroud into the wool’. Stunning. I want to let Whitby stand for all the North-East coast that this poem renews as a working coast of fishermen, and their wives and children, and a coast of indifferent sea. I have other poems of Roy’s like the ones about the clouds of birds like fieldfare that will descend on the big fields of the East Riding, and the carrion birds that farmers will string on the barbed fencing. But I’ll choose this one to remind me we’re all adrift in our ways on what is another kind of indifferent sea.
Opening a door
will sometimes make them smile,
but when the clowns and elephants are gone
the familiar tunes of their laughter
become bright fish wriggling in a statue’s throat.
On Sundays we take them out.
Their best coats
seem to have been made for someone else
as they sit in rooms
waiting for what comes next.
They are silent
as the waves of a distant sea
may still roar inside a brittle shell.
They are like old pods
rattling with dry peas.
They sit decked out like ancient gods,
shrines to what they once did,
when they were definitely here,
cairns to their lost selves,
who occasionally stir their stones to laugh,
before they, too, disappear.
There’s an image to stick like a burr, and to snag and to worry. That roaring, like a sea in a dry shell. Yes. This is why we write, clacking our needles and stitching our codes against being forgotten. Lest you think, however, that all this is bleak for a January Sunday, I should say that Roy has been an enthusiastic club cricketer over the years. You can’t do that and not have a robust sense of humour.
Before I go, I want to remind myself that the cobweb has played host in various ways to Julia Deakin, Yvie Holder and now Roy. All prize-winners, all poets who move me, and all of whom worked at the same time in the same English Dept. That just leaves one more accomplished poet from that time. Malcolm Barnes. If anyone knows where he is and can persuade him to let me have some of his poems for the cobweb, I will be forever in their debt. For now, thank you, Roy Cockcroft, and thank you all for joining us. See you next week. I have no idea what we’ll be doing.