Whose life is it anyway?
a guest blog post on Anthony Wilson’s Lifesaving poems [September 2015]
A few weeks ago I was writing about the way I had found myself conflicted about learning things about my granddad’s life that that didn’t fit with poems I’d written about him; how I was feeling uneasy about the truths of documentary records, and the truths of poems and poetry. I think it bothered me particularly, because it took me a long time to put people in my poems at all…ten years ago, pretty much all my poems were like my photographs: unpopulated landscapes.
I tried deliberately to break out of the straitjacket of endlessly writing pretty/atmospheric/repetitive (inevitably) evocations of places like Skye and the Pennine Moors. I took my cue from Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The world’s wife’, because I saw that I could try ventriloquism, learn the way of other people’s voices. I wrote monologues for all sorts of famous statues, like The Angel of the North, and for an artist who had fascinated me, and for his wife, and his model. But never about real, living people…or, at least, about people who I knew, and might get to read the poems.
I suppose the first breakthrough of sorts came in the guilty relief and release –for both of us, I want to believe – that came when my mother died in her 90s . She spent the last fifteen years of her life in a nursing home following a severe stroke. She fought against every moment of it. She resented and hated it. I took her ashes to the Valley of Desolation, her favourite place in Wharfedale, and soon after, wrote a poem about it as a sort of atonement or prayer for absolution. Then I felt guilty that I’d not written for my dad, so I wrote about his birdwatching, his shoe mending, his singing; and then I had to balance it up with more about my mum. It’s a strange thing, guilt, but the outcome was that over about three years I’d written a handful of poems, and more about my grandparents, and it seemed to come more easily with each one. I didn’t feel as if they were looking over my shoulder, tutting. Or not as often, or not as loudly.
But I can pinpoint the big breakthrough to specific dates. In October 2013 I was on a writing course at Almaserra Vella in Spain, and the tutor was Jane Draycott. She gave us a quick writing exercise…first impressions, get-it-down-fast responses to a randomly chosen postcard, which happened to be a Penguin book cover that had images of flame on it.
And I wrote about our friend Julie who we’d visited in her flat in Whitby a couple of weeks before. Julie was dying of an incurable cancer; she’d confounded the specialists by outliving their predictions by over a year.
Flames. The most tenuous of connections. But a flame burned fiercely in Julie, and in the underlit smokestacks of the Boulby mine just up the coast. Maybe that was it. I typed it up with very few changes the week after. When she died a couple of weeks later, I nerved myself up to give the poem to her brother at her funeral. I was genuinely frightened. But he liked it, shared it. Gave me a permission I realised I needed: to write honestly about and for real living people. That poem Julie won first prize in the 2013 Plough Competition. Andrew Motion had liked it! I used some of the prize money to put together and print my first two pamphlets.
According to the specialists you died six months ago
and I like sitting with you, proving there’s an afterlife
as we roll cigarettes, you perched like a wire bird
up on your kitchen top beside the angel
that I made for you before I knew you weren’t alive.
Your fridge’s crusted like a wreck, with magnets
and pictures of BobDylan, and you show me
that programme that Patti Smith had signed, for you,
not knowing you’d been applauding from the Underworld.
You make me laugh each time you tell the phone
it can get stuffed because it’s your mad mother
who will not believe that you’re not with us any more.
Your eyes grow bright in your dead woman’s face,
then sink, then glow like cigarettes, like the ironworks
up the coast, or the small lights on the cobles
tied up and tilted on the mud; like the strange flares
from the stack high up on Boulby Cliff, where the shaft
goes down a whole dark mile of ammonites, and heads off
far away beneath the weight of oil rigs, and sunken ships,
and shoals of cod, and all the grey North sea.
Which is where it gets just a little more complicated. We’ve been going to the Isle of Skye for twenty-odd years, renting a bungalow from Norman and Effie Macpherson in the crofting valley of Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula. Norman was a shepherd all his working life, on Ben Lomond, on Ben Nevis, and finally, till his death four years ago, back on his home island. Every now and then I’d try to write about them, but always felt conscious of what I imagined would be their wry, dry take on the whole sorry impertinent business. What did I know? Even so, when I put my first pamphlet together I wanted them in: a seven-poem sequence titled Crofters.
If anyone else had given me permission for that, it was MacCaig, who I read and re-read, trying to nail down just how he did it; that apparently simple thing of writing about the people and hills of Assynt that he loved and knew better than I’d ever know Skye, or Effie and Norman. Anyway, that’s the thing I was after. The way Norman would hide behind the barn to smoke, the quiet pauses of Effie’s speech. Here’s Norman
He’s laid up in the house:
joint pains, congested lungs,
bladder like a bag of knives,
and maybe sheep-dip’s to blame.
and Effie, the first year after he died, feeding the sheep that come running
like threads to a spool,
and milling like a boil of beans –
ignore the black and white dog,
the woman in the pilled grey fleece,
her hair that breezes cannot ruffle.
It was an expensive dog, that one. Norman went down to Tyndrum to buy it. A serious business, buying a working dog.
I still didn’t feel right about publishing the poems. In a diffuse sort of way, a way that says: well, they’re not going to see these poems. No-one’s going to buy them after all. That sort of thing. And then I wrote some more, and sent some in for competitions. A poem called Norman came 2nd in a York Literature festival competition this year. I wrote from memory and feeling. Some things I know are factually true and some as though they ought to be.
could birth a lamb in the lee of a dike,
smit a skittish ewe in a squall,
pin down a ram and not give a jot
for its yellow stare, the black slot of its sideways eye,
wear a two-year Herdwick like a scarf over three miles of bog,
make good a tumbled fence with a twist of twine,
strip out an axle on a Subaru,
stand half a summer to his waist in the slop of the dip
haul a whole flock through and still tell a tale
over the clamouring misery of bleat.
He could walk all day in a pelt of rain and a sack for a coat.
To put down a runt or one with a goitre
or one with a sprain or a maggoty arse –
that was beyond him quite.
The days for the slaughterman’s truck
he was away over the moor.
He knew where the first primrose showed.
I knew all about the Subaru, but the Herdwick was there for the heft of the word. It would more likely have been one of the blackfaced sheep. I don’t know the proper name. A Cheviot? What I was after was the mix of Norman’s durability and the sentimental side he could show.
He once told me he knew a secret place in the woods beyond the headland. He’d take Effie there to show her the first primroses. They can’t be got at now, because of the deer fences. He was cross about them, because now there are no deer to keep down more competitive plants.
The man at the garage in Armadale told me that all the neighbours were pretty sure that years of exposure to organo-phosphates in the sheep dip played a part in his illness. That had to find a way in.
That’s Norman who I didn’t know all that well; but it’s the Norman I remember. I worried about whether Effie would recognize him. Or think me obtrusive. An incomer.
The business was finally settled for me when Liz Lochhead picked a poem as the winner of the 2014 Plough Competition. It pivots on something Effie happened to say when I told her about an odd meeting in the rain down in Tarskavaig. This is it.
Washed up on a rucked-rug shoreline,
floats, fish-boxes, rubber gloves,
fertiliser sacks, kelp, clots of wool,
and the cockle –pickers, peat-pickled
bog-creatures, leathery, with ruined teeth,
long, dirty nails, eyes as dark as iodine.
They tinkers. Och. says Effie. You’d do well
to look to the barns, and count the spades,
and what did they ask you for,
the leather women, old coats belted with rope,
rubber boots patched with gaffer tape,
hair like seaweed, when they tapped
on the windscreen, brown as selkies.
For a light only, the bright ember,
blue smoke blown on the wind, the spit
of rain off the sea, and thanks we’re away
down the road and done with the day,
with turning stones, with lifting kelp,
browsing the hard shore for a knuckly net
of cockles, iron, amber,cobalt, rust.
What’s to be done with the Tarskavaig tinkers
who come up out of the peat or the sea?
And when the light goes, where do they turn?
We’d had a laugh over that. Not ‘PC’ that ‘tinkers’. ‘But they’re tinkers just the same’, said Effie. And I cut her some cake. Well, it takes more than a slice of cake to say ‘thank you’ for putting someone out there in public, when you never said ‘please’ in the first place. I had sleepless nights over it all, then said the serenity prayer. The bit about asking for courage to change the things we can. I made a neat parcel of my three pamphlets, and wrote a letter that took me more redrafts than most poems, all explanation, mea culpa and apology, and posted it all off to Achnacloich on the Sleat peninsula of Skye.
Then I waited. And nothing happened. I thought maybe she’d gone to visit her cousin, or gone over to Ireland for a holiday, or…….. I thought over and over, what if she’s upset, or worse. Last week I bit the bullet and telephoned. O, hello, she said. I was meaning to ring you…I feel guilty now, you know how things get put off, it’s been a terrible summer, och, the worst I remember, dreich days, and grass poor, we’re taking supplements up to sheep; yes I got your books. We liked them. Norma says I’ll be famous now. Och, no, of course I’m not cross.
For two days I walked on air, and in November I’ll be able to go and see her, and all will be well. Whose lives are they anyway, when we write? I have no idea. But I know we’re responsible for them, and the truth of them. Whatever that is.
A 2018 Postscript: Since I first wrote this post, I’ve had two pamphlets, a collection, and a jointly-authored collection published. The tinkers and Effie and Norman finally went properly public in 2016 when they appeared my first collection, Much Possessed [smith|doorstop. £9.95]. And in more poems that may or may not be published one day. There’s a moral here. Stay with your instincts. Anyway, as a bonus track, here’s Norman from “Much possessed”
That would be the time I saw the White-tailed eagle,
the time Norman says Well, yes, I’ll take another,
the time he came up to the cottage, which is a thing
he rarely does;it would be Effie, usually,
who’d have a cup of tea, a slice of Dundee cake,
but Norman says cake’s not his thing, and coughs,
thoughtfully, because sheep dip will do that
over the years, it’ll get to the lungs, so then
we settle on the whisky; not a single malt –
the Isle of Skye that’s blended in the South,
in pawky Edinburgh, but like Angus
at the Post Office by the ferry always says:
it’s a wee bit smoky-peaty, and och it’s no
to everybody’s taste, but it turns out
it tastes just fine, which is how it comes to be
that Norman takes a generous third glass
and spreads himself a little and says
that last year, driving back from Armadale,
just where the road comes over the moor
above Loch Dughail, just before it twists
down the three miles through the birches,
just there, and was it June? Och, summer, anyway
and right there above the loch, and it was a day
so still, there was a White-tailed eagle, sailing
in off Slapin, and not a wingbeat to it now,
and there it was, and there it was reflected
in the loch, and you know, that was a lovely thing,
the eagle in the wind and on the water.
And I know that though I never saw the eagle
ride the wind to Rhum, I know I saw it then
with Norman, comfy in the armchair,
with that third glass of smoky-peaty
blended Isle of Skye.