It’s grim up North. Well, bits of it undoubtedly are. As are bits of everywhere else. All through the 60’s if you watched ‘Coronation Street’ (of which more later) the opening credits reinforced an image of terraced roofs and smoking chimneys, as though Manchester had remained unchanged since this photo of Ancoats was taken in 1875, and would remain unchanged hereafter. Of course, it’s not like that. It’s not like that at all. There’s another lazy trope which goes on the lines that we live in an overcrowded island. But every Sunday night 3 or 4 million people tune in to watch ‘Countryfile’ , which may be like Blue Peter for the terminally nostalgic, but whose opening credits present a Britain from the air which is entirely rural, beautiful, and almost entirely unpopulated. It makes me feel much the same way as any flight into Leeds/Bradford, or into Manchester….that I live in a rural island punctuated by bits of urbanisation. Maybe that’s why I find London so alien, so relentlessly and endlessly built-up.
This picture’s taken from Wainhouse’s Tower in Halifax, not far from where this Sunday’s polished gem, Keith Hutson lives, and where he keeps several acres of hillside, and a small flock of sheep.In my part of Northern England, industrial towns are interpenetrated by field and woodlands and moors. The street of the mill town where I grew up had a dairy farm at the top (surrounded by a prefab council estate, and old pit spoilheaps) and a blankfaced mill at the bottom. One of the barns in the farm was actually something built by the Knights of St. John in the 12th C. It got knocked down. Beyond the mill, up the opposite hillside was a farm, and the woodlands of Wilton Park, and beyond that, in the next valley, opencast mines, woods, farms, brickworks, and so on all the way to Leeds, ten miles to the north. And the thing is, you never have to travel too far for views like this (which is pretty much like the view from Keith’s house, and hundreds of others on the hillsides of the Calder valley)
And your point?..I hear you thinking. Well, the sharp-eyed poetry blog fans among you will have noticed that Keith was the guest poet on Kim Moore’s Sunday poem, [ https://kimmoorepoet.wordpress.com/ ] a couple of weeks ago and that she chose a poem about a bath set in a field on a hillside not unlike this; if she’d not beat me to it, it’s one I would have asked for myself. Basically, I’m after a context for the poems Keith sent me…because it’s always a surprise to get his next new poem. Part of the biography he sent me will set you up for the poem that follows:
‘ Keith was born in Manchester in 1957. He cut his writing teeth in the 1980s, writing and performing in plays, sketches, pantos and reviews for the amateur stage. He was also writing poetry and had 12 poems published in the Outposts Modern Poets Series, edited by Howard Sergeant. His output led him to become a script and storyline writer for Coronation Street, and his agent Roger Hancock (the late, great Tony’s brother) got him work writing material for many well-known comedians, including Les Dawson, Jasper Carrot and Michael Barrymore. Keith also collaborated, with Leslie Darbon, on a Channel 4 Sitcom called First Nights.’ It is, I think, a background that accounts for the eye for situation, for the sense of the nub of a story, and for the economy of telling that I think is one of Keith’s signatures.
At the bottom of a street gone bust
– even the bookies boarded up –
I saw them: mum, two kids, no coats,
standing on the corner. Soaked.
It was the lad who came across
– bigger than his sister – ten, perhaps.
Could I tell him where the Shelter was?
I could. He thanked me very much,
then I took off my glove and shook
his gloveless hand. Good luck.
When he went back, she waved, his mum.
They each picked up a bag, held hands, carried on.
Keith adds a footnote to this which typifies the empathy that runs through all his poems, and equally, his lack of sentimentality: ‘THE FAMILY: This poem was first published by Pennine Platform and pays tribute to a family I encountered when I was doing a landscaping job in Whalley Range, Manchester. The ten year old boy would be about thirty now, and I often think about him and still wish him good luck.’ And there’s our urban landscape. What I like is that economy, the short sentences, the careful punctuation. It’s a poem that comes with its own spare stage directions.
Keith is a landscaper – apprenticed at sixteen. His poetry mines a deep vein of manual labour and he is proud to have worked physically all his life. He does regret having to put most of his efforts into running the family landscaping and nursery business when his father became ill, but he is now able to write full time and is grateful for the experience a lifetime of outdoor work has given him. And, I guess, the small pleasures of physical work, especially at the end of a day. Pleasures like the one he records in this poem.
Coal Tar Soap
Stink with zing, this bitter little blister by the sink,
but every working sunset since the work
began, you’ll find me sunk, up to the elbows
in the stuff. I’ve come to love the twilight scrub;
carbolic lather sending heavy sessions
down the drain. Drudgery and me decanted
to the stark nirvana of a straight-backed seat,
no company, a book of poems interrupted
only by a spot of splinter-picking
through tobacco smoke, the quasi-comfort
of familiar aches and pains: by-products
of a life that, like the soap, has never changed.
I like the way the simple fact of the ritual of washing off the day’s grease and grime, its sharp smells and textures and comforts, is sustained; the conceit of the day’s graft gone down the drain, the distraction of ‘splinter-picking. And although it’s not precisely the role of poetry (is it?) it’s nice to remember that soap. Its translucence, that ‘bitter blister’ like an amber tear.
Keith’s third poem sits us down in one of those carefully nurtured and landscaped and manicured spaces that I imagine in the middle of industrial towns. And in this case, I have to admit that, for me, the word ‘bowls’ can only mean the crown green variety, played by dry-witted laconic men; men who were very sparing of movement and of conversation. This poem for me is every game of bowls I ever sort-of-watched.
Fine for an hour, then dull, despite a summer sun.
Green tedium. But do beware,
if nudged a bit, this game is good
at slowly rolling on and on.
Little genuflections – bows, knee-bends,
cupped hands, unfolding arms – weave
in the dying light their latticework
of shadows and perpetuate
the minor knocks, near misses, clusterings
and calls of Way too heavy, Jim!
into a never-ending winding-down,
a loop of letting go.
It becomes a metaphor for all the lives of retired working men I knew, a slow decline into dusk. I want to shout at them: rage! rage against the dying light! I doubt they’d listen, absorbed in their slow rituals, winding down.
Now, I had a sort of rule of thumb that ‘polished gems’ would be p0ets who have had a collection published, but I need to make an exception for Keith, who is certainly no ‘undiscovered gem’. Although he has only seriously started to submit his own work since January last year, encouraged by his friend Clare Shaw**, he has so far been published by The Rialto, The North, Butcher’s Dog, Prole Magazine, Pennine Platform, Ink Sweat and Tears, Hark, Meniscus (the University of Canberra) and Hinterland where he is now Submissions Editor. He has recently been commissioned by The Prince’s Trust to provide poetry and performance workshops to schools in Calderdale. Ian Parks, the founding editor of Hinterland, says he finds Keith’s poetry ‘interesting and exciting’. Keith is currently doing a BA in Creative Writing through the Open College of the Arts. He hosts the monthly WordPlay event at Square Chapel, Halifax, and runs (with Winston Plowes) the Square Chapel Creative Writing Group. I reckon that counts as ‘discovered’ .
I should also say that I was hoping he might have let me have one his poems that draw on the world of the music hall; it turns out that Widow Twankey is currently seeking employment elsewhere, as is another I wanted …Frankie Vaughan at a lad’s boxing club in Ancoats.If you want a taste of the world of the music hall comedian in the dying days of the craft, you can find three sonnets in The North 53, and make the acquaintance of Sandy Powell,Tommy Trinder, and Robb Wilton who each apparently built a career on profoundly unfunny catchphrases. Keith’s Uncle would take him, as a young boy, to see all the comic greats who appeared at Blackpool and other theatres in the North, and a lot of his recent poetry pays tribute to the performers he loves. He is working towards a collection of these poems, called Troupers. (Any offers anyone?)
There you are. Say ‘thank you, Mr Hutson.’ Next week we’re having a half-term break while I go the Lakes to do some writing with the multitalented Peter Sansom. And the week after that, we’re asking the question. ‘The past. Another country?’
** Clare Shaw: Straight ahead , Head on  …both published by Bloodaxe