Yesterday I heard that my friend Gordon Hodgeon had died in the early hours. He was one of the loveliest people I ever met. I wrote this appreciation of him (and his poetry) over a year ago.
In 1982 I was invited to be a visiting tutor on a weekend residential course, in Goathland, for Teesside teachers of English. Talented teachers working in their own time, because they were excited by the possibilities of what children could learn and do. It happened quite a lot in those days. One of my newly-acquired enthusiasms then was for developing writing through the retelling of myth and fable. The books that inspired me were Betty Rosen’s And none of it was nonsense, Alan Garner’s The stone book, and a remarkable piece of work by Penelope Farmer: Beginnings. Spare prose outlines of creation myths from around the world.
On one of the evenings, I got to read my own retelling of a Finnish fire myth. In the original, fire falls to earth through the inattention of one of the anonymous star maidens at the making of stars by the god, Ukko. The spark is finally captured by the hero Vainemoinen; he’s the one who gets the credit. But you never know where a retelling will take you. In my version, though I never intended it, the gift of fire becomes an act of rebellion by the star maiden, who pities the creatures of the earth in their blood-chilling winters. She becomes Promethean, a bright star, and the god Ukko just another divine and appalling tyrant.
I’d forgotten all about it till , the other morning, when I was waiting for a man to change two rear car tyres for ones that wouldn’t readily blow out on a motorway, and I was reading Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Landmarks’. There’s a chapter marvellously called The tunnel of stones and axes, and, just like that, I was reunited with Vainemoinen, and the Finnish Kalevala epic. The hero has been set to find the Lost-Words. For want of the names he cannot build his ship right. Without the thousand Lost-Words he cannot name the world to make it real.
‘Synonyms are of no use,’ writes Macfarlane. ‘ The power of each name is specific to its form.’
To understand this is to understand enchantment; we grow accustomed to the story of the enchanted castle, spellstruck, sleepstruck, drowning in thorn and briar, and to its cold, enchanted sarcophagus princess, white as marble. Macfarlane urges a truer meaning. To en-chant. To call into being. To summon by chanting, when only the true Lost-Words will do.
I thought of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The wizard of Earthsea and the hero Ged’s quest for true naming, and I thought of Gordon Hodgeon who was the driving force behind those Teesside English teachers’ courses
Somedays you simply have to accept that there’s a synergy in things, and life delights in it. Last week I opened an e.mail from a George Hodgeon inviting me to the launch of a new poetry collection by a man who I’ve known and admired for years and years. I supposed that George must be his brother. Anyway, this is it:
I wrote back to George Hodgeon, explaining that I wouldn’t be able to be at Gordon’s book launch….and then launched into a fulsome paean of praise, about how much I and so many others owe to Gordon, what a lovely man he is, and so on and so on. And I have to say it did feel a bit too much like a eulogy for comfort. The following day I got an email that reassured me that Gordon was more than capable of speaking for himself, and that it was, indeed, Gordon who had sent the email, and that it was Gordon who was writing this one. By way of explanation for the ‘George’ he attached this poem.
For George, Paternal Grandfather
You never reached your seventy third birthday,
I am struggling to reach mine, so let’s
get a few things straight. Through all my adult life
you’ve been a pain, kept slipping out
the shades, sliding your name into my affairs.
I have been George on conference lists and sticky labels,
on business letters, on hotel bills, once even on a poem.
Sometimes, so weary, I went with the flow,
so folk could go to the grave
thinking I bear your name. No chance of that.
Your only son, our father, wanted it grander,
landed me with that general’s name,
my brother with Lord Clive’s.
Not sure why. Dad read the News Chronicle.
But last Tuesday the ultimate put-down.
I was in hospital and gave my name and d.o.b.
to about fifteen nurses and my carer answered
the same questions to half a dozen doctors.
Then I got moved to my place for the night.
In comes a new nurse, greets me warmly:
“Hello George, I am Amanda, I’ll be looking after you
tonight.” How do you manage it?
Have you nothing better to spend your time on?
Given the state I’m in, quite soon
we might meet up. I warn you now,
just one more trick, I’ll alter every entry
in the eternal register, make sure that
all the angels and devils call you my name,
Gordon, your deserved reward.
But I’ll still love you, Grandad,
love how you have walked with me
all the way, more than sixty years
from Leigh Market to just now
when I stopped walking, stopped
being able to carry your basket.
You fed the children from that grid of streets
when their dads were on strike or had no work;
you lent money, thinking it would not come back,
it didn’t. You ran the Sunday School, you
made a gift to me of well-thumbed books,
Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, George Eliot.
You let me learn your sense of serious fun.
How you tormented the old ladies
reading their teacups, winking at me.
I am just as bad, laugh at my own jokes.
I never was as good at giving, never
as well-behaved, never as upright.
I should have been your namesake,
and now I see why you’ve been nudging,
dropping hints, not about names at all.
I let you down, still you raise me up,
George, Gordon, share this bittersweet,
this lifelong lovefeast cup.
First reading, you might skate over that matter-of-fact opening; it’s one of the things we say, not thinking. But what if you knew it were true. What if you were quadraplegic, breathing only with the aid of a ventilator; what if you struggled to speak and then, finally could not speak aloud; what if all your communication became a digital code of blinks at a Dynavox computer screen. Could you write that with the same wry stoicism, that wit? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. Read this poem aloud, over and over. Its pace, its rhythm never lets you down. It’s totally without sentimentality, and brims with generosity of spirit. I love the ending, and how it en-chants heartsease.
I’ve always enjoyed Gordon Hodgeon’s poetry; the first collections I had were ‘Behind the lines’ (which I’ve since lost; mea culpa, mate) and November photographs. Both are full of the landscapes and townscapes of Cleveland where for many years he was, first, LEA English Advisor, and later the Senior Advisor. These poems of the late 70s and early 80’s often occupy the same thematic and linguistic territory as the Ted Hughes of Remains of Elmet. Like these lines from ‘In the West Riding’
‘There is no fervency now,
nothing burning on the bought land,
God’s-yard, or in the dark house
pieced on the looms.
but there’s wordplay, too, in a poem like Nursery War. There are carefully crafted poems of artful rhyme schemes. Riches everywhere. I’ve always liked one called Old woman, Skinningrove.
A strange place, Skinningrove in the 60s; it always came as a surprise, as you came over the steep brow of the main clifftop coast road from Middlesbrough to Whitby…there it was, that ironworks in the middle of nowhere, deep in a clough in the shaly coast, where the beck ran out into the North Sea. It was dying on its feet, that place. Gordon turns a more than documentary eye on the ‘old woman’. It’s a poem that Don McCullin might have photographed.
Old woman, Skinningrove
This was her wedding window.
Now the laced glass is gone
with salt wind, dirt in smoke,
turns round the sun.
Here she minded and mended
in one ironworks street
by a cold stained sea. A moth
in the folded blanket.
Don’t take my picture, lad,
I’m too far gone for that.
She sees the end of it all,
knowing what was, is not.
Her man and babies gone,
the days that drove her tough
leave stones for air to finger,
fray the fineries off.
I love the spareness of this, its stripped down precision, its unobtrusive rhymed formalities, and, above all, its tenderness. Uz can be loving as well as funny. And the later poems grow ever more layered, complex, challenging, without ever losing that tender clarity. If irreverence is more your thing, you’ll not be disappointed. Try Accomodation from Winter Breaks (2006). You get to an age where visits to the Crem. become uncomfortably regular, but not all of us handle it with such aplomb as in the extract from:
Now I am envying (you as well?) the sod
who’s made it to the safety of the casket
and wishing it was me in there instead,
the Roller, silk sheets, chicken in the basket.
No Vacancies and not Abide with me
the tapes’s repeating on the life machine.
Don’t hang about, piss off, and get your tea,
you’re at death’s door, though, keep your knickers clean.
I sometimes forget how often he’s made me laugh. Especially now. Some of the poems from ‘Still Life’ (2012) are close to heartbreaking; poems like ‘Leaving: for Julia’ which records his situation when he and his wife were wheelchair-bound, in separate nursing ‘homes’, having sold the family home, visiting each other, tended by nurses, hoisted into minibuses, hardly knowing what to say:
Leaving (for Julia)
And now there are new owners,
making the house their own.
Peter from next door telling me this,
first project, a room for their one-year old.
I think they will clear the garden
for the child’s first steps,
for balls to roll and bounce.
Under the grass, weak as worm castings,
our weary archaeology, the bones of buried animals,
one pheasant hit on the Sunday morning run
to the swimming pool; one rabbit banned from your school,
which would not dig its way out again.
Also, the procession of cats stalking through childhoods.
So next your turn to visit me,
our daughter driving, your carer by your side.
We did some talking this time, but dear me,
your anxious mind began its litany
of questions: is it time to go now?
And repetitions, till we set you free
to make your safe way home,
yet it was not your home.
Here, in the early hours
I often wake, hear the comfort,
your regular breath beside me.
But this is a single bed
and the breath I hear is the ventilator
filling and emptying my lungs.
And, ah, the resonances of that one word: home. The archaeology of a family house, overlain by new and other lives. I would find that unbearable. But Gordon writes it, en-chants it, unwaveringly, just as he contemplates the end of things, conflating and eliding the dark sonnets of Gerard Manley Hopkins with adverts for , say, a DFS sofa sale. This is ‘Closing down’….or, at least, parts of it, the prayer of an ardent atheist.
The world is full of half-price sofas,
the universe getting that way, Cliffs of fall,
each hue of leather, fabric of your choice.
Between these mindless mountains, little me
in my wheelchair, doing my little wheelies,
reverse and forward, left and right,
thick pile carpet snags me.
I know, I know,
at the closing down of the sun, everything must go.
All of us caught, packed into bags, boxes,
white fish, cheap fireworks, shipped to another planet,
sprayed out like crummy birds-eyes, fingers,
squirting like Catherine wheels,
slithering like mice-droppings,
like the souls of our most loyal customers
through ever colder galaxies.
But not yet I pray you,
my land of lost contents, my lifetime bargains,
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
the detachable dry-clean shrouds, let me be,
my pale skin, my scored face, my limp limbs, my cracked wheels,
let me have one more turn of the sun, one last chance,
never to be repeated.
That’s the universe I’ll vote for. No entropy in the world of Gordon Hodgeon’s poetry. I remember the lesson learned by Ged in A wizard of Earthsea. That magic is the business of true-naming, and that until you can say your own true-name, you cannot say yourself. You en-chant yourself and the world into being. If that’s not the business of poetry then I don’t know what is. All his working life, Gordon championed the cause of creativity in Education, and the cause of a richer living through poetry, through his work as a teacher and advisor, through NATE, through publishing with Smokestack Books, and Mudfog Books. Five years ago a series of unsuccessful operations left him confined to bed and wheelchair, unable to move his arms and legs, unable to breathe without the help of a ventilator, unable to pick up a pen, and finally unable to speak except through a sequence of blinks at a machine.
Last year I sent him a pamphlet I’d produced…poems about my parents and grandparents. Shortly after, he wrote back. There were too many adjectives, he said; he wanted to know more about my grandma. There you go. Firm but fair. Thirty years ago he cast an eye over a poem I’d written: ‘Our David’s Pictures’ He suggested one simple reversal, and Bingo! The poem worked. For years, at critical moments, he’s unobtrusively put me right professionally and personally. I owe him a lot. There are other people who knew him so much better than I who will tell you about his life. I know I’ll not come close to doing justice to the variety and range and textures of his writing, and I’ll leave it to one of his short poems (I think it’s from that lost copy of Behind the Lines …. which means I’m relying on memory)…….anyway, to this poem which sums up all the inexhaustibilities he’s written about for over 50 years.
Jack Robinson; he’s the one;
before you can say him, the poem’s done.
Thank you, Gordon/George Hodgeon: Bright Star.
‘Still life’ (£7.95) can be ordered direct from Smokestack Books, and so can
‘Talking to the Dead’ (£4.95)…find them on firstname.lastname@example.org
If you like everything under one cover, then you can get close to it by buying the handsome, chunky Selected Poems. ‘Old workings’ [mudfog 2013.] £8.95 .