Reason to believe

At the end of apartheid in South Africa, television news reports showed image after image of the people of Soweto, and other black townships, queuing for hours and hours to cast their votes for the first time in their history. One man in particular came out of the polling station to tell the cameras and the world: Today, I am a human being.

I think of this every time I hear yet another lazy-minded member of the great British public telling the world they’re not going to vote, because it won’t make any difference.

That’s one image. Here’s another.

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I first saw this film in the 1950’s. I was maybe 13 years old. What I remembered of it were the images that I guess everyone has of the sinking of the Titanic; the desperate search for lifeboats, the separation of children and their mothers from their stiff-lipped fathers, a heartstopping image of an elderly steward clutching a small boy seconds before the final plunge, and the one of the ship with all its lights blazing as it tips steeper and steeper, its huge propellers uselessly high above the water, and the small lfeboats pulling desperately away.

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Years later, I read the Walter Lord book on which the film is remarkably faithfully based. It’s still available via Google searches. If you want the definitive read, then I’m pretty sure this is it.

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For ten years I used material from the book and hired the 16mm cine version of the film and showed it to Year 8 secondary students who would explore its issues through drama, and who would set up courts of enquiry, and write newspaper accounts and editorials. I found copies of the ‘Daily Mirror’ which, two days after the ship had sunk, reported that all were safe. We would explore how that could happen, too, and learn that the ship was the first ever to radio an SOS signal. All in all, I’ve watched the film 23 times, and never found it less than gripping.

But the focus of my interest (and the drama we did with the students) shifted more and more to the social inequalites that the film puts squarely at its heart. It begins, so you are never in doubt, with three cameo sequences. Each is a  scene of parting.

The first is that of the gentry leaving a country house in their coach, laden with cabin trunks, its coachman, its gentleman’s gentleman and its lady’s maid; it is dutifully waved through the park gates by tidily-turned-out orphans lined up specially for the event.

The second scene is the departure of a comfortably-off newly married couple from the prosperous suburbs.

The third is that of the village priest putting heart into a group of Irish migrants before they set out for a new world and a new life.

In maybe three minutes of narrative the film sets up the social divisions that were to be horribly replicated in the bald statistics of the tragedy. 1374 men were drowned, 103 women, and 53 children. Over 80% of the men were from the 3rd class passengers and the crew. 100% of the children were from the 3rd Class. The wage slips of the crew show that they ceased being paid from the moment that the ship went down. The loss of the Titanic has been turned into symbolisms. At the time, it primarily was presented as symbolic of overweening human pride and faith in the powers of science and engineering. To me it has always symbolised what was radically wrong with a society that allowed morally indefensible social division and inequality. If you need reminding how fragile that belief can be watch the 1990’s ‘Titanic’ which turned the narrative into a story about two improbable individuals. Just another blockbuster disaster movie. And a dreadful theme song. My heart will go on. And not a shred of irony anywhere. Then think about the banking collapse created by rich immoral men who behaved as if they were invincible. Masters of the universe. And ask who went down with the ship with all those subprime mortgages. And then look at the footage of body bags brought ashore after another migrant boat goes down in the Mediteranean and ask who is in them, and how many were rich. I saw a statistic yesterday that tells me that the average CEO of a British company is paid (I nearly wrote ‘earns’) 135 times the average pay of each of his, or, less frequently, her, average employee.

The Titanic sank on the night of April 14, 1912. Here’s another image from a year later. In June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison was killed trying to seize the bridle of the king’s horse in the Derby.

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This still frame from a newsreel film has always haunted me. It has always had echoes of Breughel’s Landscape with the fall of Icarus’ and Auden’s Musee des beaux arts, the poem in which everything turns ‘leisurely away’ from the awful and marvellous fact of a boy falling from the sky. The ship has somewhere to get to, the ploughman hasn’t finished his field, the angler is concentrated on the tiny movement of his float. And at the Derby, most of the crowd are busy watching the rapidly vanishing horses.

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The speed of film and its imperturbablity is what makes sure we can never have reason not to know this moment in which a woman is killed for the right to make her mark on a ballot slip. I’ve written about how it took me thirty years to write down what it meant. Or to write it down in a way that I felt was as true as I could be to the moment and it’s significance, to say what it meant. This is as near as I think I shall ever get.

Camera obscura

(Emily Wilding Davison. June 1913)

The reason for your being here
is out of sight. They can’t be seen –
your Cause’s colours sewn inside
your decent coat: white, violet, green.

The camera sees the moment you began to die:
the jockey, trim in silks, is doll-like
on the grass and seems asleep;
his mount is spraddled on its back;
its useless hooves flail at the sky.

Your spinning, flower-trimmed hat
is stopped, distinct, mid-flight;
your hair’s still not come down;
you’re frozen, inches from the ground;
your boots are neatly buttoned,
take small steps on the arrested air.

You’re stopped in time. No sound,
no texture, no sour odour
of bruised grass and earth. Just
silence and the alchemy of light.

How did you comprehend
the shock of heat, huge muscle, hair,
in that white moment
when the dark came down?

The camera cannot tell;
it’s business neither truth nor lies.
It shows a fallen horse. A woman falling. A crowd
in hats and blazers staring down a long perspective;
the field intent upon the distant fairy icing
grandstand. The waving flags. The finish line.

Until the image blurs, dissolves in silver flowers,
it’s there on celluloid in shades of grey;
the camera only says that in that instant
you are dying, and everyone has looked away.

I have always believed that no-one in the photograph has taken in what has happened in that split second. But the public as represented by the great British press still hadn’t taken it in two days later, when there was more concern expressed about the horse and the distress of the king than the death of a wrong-headed hysterical woman with a known prison record.

I ask myself how much has changed, essentially changed, in the last 100 years. One thing for sure. There weren’t that many people in 1945 saying they couldn’t be bothered to vote, or people saying that voting changed nothing, or that whoever you vote for ,’they’re all the same, so what was the point?’. They believed that voting could achieve a seismic change, and it did. Everything that makes me glad to live in this country was started then. And now it’s being assett-stripped by a financially privileged clique bolstered by the likes of Rothermere and Murdoch. And what’s to be done? At the very least, you can think of one anonymous man in Soweto, and one frail woman in buttoned boots, and you can vote. And thank all the tongueless who have gone down in history and disappeared who make it possible.

Special Edition: for Kim Moore and for ‘The art of falling’

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As tweeting politians know to their cost ( but without ever learning a lesson) you should be careful what you send out into cyberspace. I ended last week’s cobweb strand unwisely. I wrote: ‘ I don’t know what next week’s post will bring……but it won’t be as inspiring as this one.’   Well, I’d just spent a lot of hours over that week in the company of Gordon Hodgeon’s story and of his poems. What I hadn’t allowed for was that I’d spend five days of this week at a residential writing course run by Kim Moore and Carola Luther. I hadn’t allowed for the intensity of writing and writing and writing. I hadn’t allowed for the weather. I hadn’t allowed for the fact that I had no idea what Grange-over-Sands would be like. I’d got it into my head that walkable hills would rise up from the sea shore, and that each day I would clamber up something rough and steep, and clear my head. I thought saltmarsh was something I could learn to walk on. I was en-chanted by Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks. I thought I could go anywhere, protected by the charms of language. I thought I would stride to Tir nan Og and back.

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I know better, now. Instead, I was spellstruck by the poetry of metamorphoses, stories of transformation, and the magical symbioses of the soul and the body. And, of course, last Tuesday, a big cardboard box of fresh-minted copies of Kim Moore’s first collection arrived. The art of falling. We queued to buy our copies; we had been waiting for this for a long time. I’m not going to write a review…I guess there are plenty of these being written as I sit here, and by people better qualified than me; I think these reviews will be fulsome. If they are not, they will be wrong. What I will do is to say why I had waited, how much I’d looked forward to having a copy in my hands.

The first time I met Kim Moore was at a Saturday Writing Day in Sheffield and she read a draft that she’d assembled on the train ride that morning. It made my blood tingle, the way she read it, the words she read. It was inevitable and memorable, instantly. I could not get out of my mind the image of her, arrested by the sheep grazing the saltmarsh  seen from the train as it ‘stretches its limb across the estuary’, and the poet thinking

…that if the sheep aren’t rounded up

 

will they stand and let the tide come in, because

that’s what sheep do, they don’t save themselves…

 

In the discomfort of the train, and its loud insensitivities, and the sleeping man who dribbles on her shouder, there’s this one phrase : and still I love. That’s all it took. I was hooked. Even more so when I asked if I could have a copy, and the next day it arrived in in an email. How generous, I thought, is that!

The next time I met her was when she was guest poet at The Puzzle Hall Poets in Sowerby Bridge (if you wonder where that is, then you need to watch ‘Happy Valley’); one good deed deserves another, so I left a Rugby League derby early to go and hear her. There was hardly anyone there, and a couple in a window seat talked loudly throughout her reading. It reminded me of the gigs where I’ve seen one of my singer/songwriter heroes, Mary Gauthier playing to crass audiences for next to no reward. There’s a special kind of commitment, and Kim Moore has it.

I went to hear her again at the Albert Poets in Huddersfield, where they appreciate their poetry, and where they bought her pamphlet  If we could speak like wolves. But I couldn’t help doing the sums. You’d have to sell a lot of books to even come near covering your petrol or your train fare. How many poetry gigs pay for you to turn up, or even pass the hat? Who would dream of paying a poet even the minimum wage for every hour she spends, reading, writing, learning, making? I learned how generous she is, and also a sort of indominability. It happened again, about a year ago, when she drove from the Lake District to West Yorkshire and back, for a gig where none of the guests were bought a drink, and where no one seemed interested in buying a book. So, she may not be unique, but I think she’s special.

Since then, I’ve sent her poems to comment on, (which she does) and I follow her journeys through Facebook, and I religiously read The Sunday Poem. I love the generosity of her championship of other poems and poets, I am in awe of her reading, her absorption in the business of growing her craft. She is half my age, I think. She is older than that, and wiser. I have elected her my mentor. I suppose I should have asked, but she seems unphased by it.

Last year she sent me (among others) the manuscript of her collection to comment on. I’ll tell you what that was like. It was like winning the lottery. It was like the loveliest girl at a dance asking you to dance, not because she fancied you, but because she thought you could dance well enough. I read with more concentration than I’ve given anything in years. I read every poem aloud. I read  In that year. I read this:

‘And in that year I gave up on all the things

I was promised and gave myself to sadness.

 

And then that year lay down like a path

and I walked it, I walked it, I walk it.’

 

I’m told I cry too easily, but this time I was unashamed. It’s like one of the great songs. Like late Johnny Cash, like Cohen, like Dylan, beautifully spare, apparently effortless, simple and crafted. I knew she was good, but now I knew her poetry was special, up there in my private anthology with MacCaig, and Harrison, poems I could have by heart and say to myself.

[Stage direction: the writer goes downstairs; he discovers that the dhal is starting to stick, and needs a stir. He wilts spinach and adds it to the pot. He rolls a cig and wanders out into the garden. He puts away spades and rakes that have been left out all last week. He decides to put another coat of paint on the bit he replastered this morning, after the shelf fell off the wall last night. He keeps finding bit of broken china, so he hoovers the kitchen. He rolls another cig, and then comes upstairs and reads what he has written. He thinks it is a star-struck fan-letter. He decides to leave it as it is and then to sort of justify it]

Why do I like  The art of falling ‘ as much as I do? Let me take this extract from ‘How the stones fell.’

 

We were born from stones and we were destined to live

like stones, warming ourselves in the sun,

 

cracking when the temperature fell, we said there there was

something of the sea in us, but in this, like many other things

we lied, it was never water in our hearts, we carried stones

in our pockets, we carried them in our hands.

 

What holds me in Kim Moore’s poetry is her long sentences, where the phrases are exact and perfectly balanced, where the rhythm never puts a foot wrong. You have to read them, enact them, like a musical score. You have to breathe through them, sustain each image as it builds and builds the whole idea of the poem. The lexis is never ornate or decorative, but the overall feel is of textured richness. I tell myself  that these are poems written by gifted trumpet player, someone who knows breathing and pace, that it’s in her bones. I think it when I’ve seen her read. She stands as balanced and rooted as a trumpet player needs to be.

If that were all it was it would be interesting, but as I learned in her workshops this week, what matters in her poetry is  the mysterious dependence of soul and body. Her poetry has a physicality that is often fierce, and often tender, and aware of the tension between the two,  that we have to acknowledge to become fully alive. That’s what I take from the opening poem of the collection

And the soul

And the soul, if she is to know herself

must look into the soul and find

what kind of beast is hiding

 

…………………… if it be a wolf

throw back your head

and let it howl.

 

So, as I read over and over this collection of psalms and incantations, its enchantments and curses, its scaffolders, and unintentional swearers and casual racists, its abusive men and defiant survivors, its wolves and Weatherspoons, its mutabilities and transformation, I think I can be happy to sit for a minute in Hartley Street Spiritualist Church, and not only sing ‘ I believe in angels’ without any irony at all, but just for a while, actually believe in angels.

Last Tuesday I was watching Kim signing copies of her collection. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone quite so happy.

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The art of falling is published by Seren. Go and buy it. Better judges than me will tell you why, but don’t wait for the reviews. Go and buy it. Go on. I’ll let you out early. Oh, nearly forgot. Had a little stock-take, and noticed that the great fogginzo’s cobweb started to be spun in April 2014. I have just hit 52 posts (not counting reblogged posts) so I’m having two weeks off. I hope you’ll still be around when I come back. Thanks for following.