Deadline closing in. Not long to go. Six more poems arrived today……you are stars, all of you . Thirty three of you are still to send in your poems . But seriously, if it’s not working for you, don’t push it. As Helen Mort once said to me you can make a poem be, but it won’t be much good. If it doesn’t want to be, leave it alone. Be at peace.
In the meantime I’ll share something that I find troubling, which is that I keep writing poems about executioners and hangmen. For instance, one about a man who’s explaining to his apprentice the right way of making crosses for crucifixions, his concerns for doing a proper job. That one’s been published, but others haven’t. Till now. Well, in a minute or so.
If you’ve been re-reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the bodies before settling down with The mirror and the light, you’ll have noticed that she’s appalled by the business of late-medieval executions – burnings, hangings, quarterings. She can’t let it alone. Three times she revisits Thomas Cromwell’s childhood experience of watching the burning of an 80 year old Lollard woman. It haunts him, so it haunts her. And once it’s in your head, it haunts you. It gives me nightmares.
And then there’s Cromwell’s genuine practical tradesman’s interest in the business of Ann Boleyn’s execution by the sword, his need to know how it is done, whether the scaffold rails are secure, why there’s not proper attention to a coffin for the corpse and its head. All trades interest him, from the arts of the kitchen to the weaving of carpets; he notices fabrics, the state of roofs; he takes a keen interest in the price of bricks; he wonders at his wife’s dexterity with yarns. And so on.
Because, after all, everything we do is, in one way or another, a job, an occupation, and if you’re immersed in being good at it you might not notice its human and moral and social dimensions.
but someone has to do it
Mudlarks, toshers, night-soil men,
bottom-sawyers , crossing sweepers;
they’ve got their pride and pecking orders.
Steady trades. Midwives,
quacks, gravediggers. And us.
It’s a job, and someone’s got to do it.
There’s always dips and forgers,
infanticides, highwaymen and thieves.
And religion’s good for business, too.
Best start young. Rough joinery.
Scaffolds don’t just build themselves.
Then there’s all the mucky jobs,
the swabbing and the sweeping up.
Drawing’s the worst for that.
Later you can learn the ways of ropes,
how to put a good edge on an axe,
and how to calculate a bribe. It costs
to get it over neat and quick.
Why do we wear a hood?
It’s up to you. Me, I like a bit of theatre.
Some don’t like the customers
to see their face. Don’t like the idea
of it printed on the vision of one
who’ll take it all the way to hell.
Anyway, time-served, you need to choose:
rope, or axe, or stake. First two,
you get to share the dead ones’ clothes.
Burning. It’s a dustman’s work, knowing
which way the wind is blowing,
not much liking rain. A still, cool day’s
what you hope for, and cash in hand
for a quick strangling behind
the first thick white smoke.
It maybe suits the clumsy, or the cruel.
It’s not what you’d call a trade.
Still. Someone’s got to do it. Like I said.
I can’t imagine this one gives much thought to what life might be like when all this is over. It’s a job, and apparently, it comes without drawbacks. You can see him collecting his pension when he can’t get up a ladder any more.
On the other hand, the most famous public executioner of recent times, Albert Pierrepoint, was a remarkably complex character. On the one hand he took meticulous pride in the detail of the job, and in getting through a hanging as neatly and quickly as possible. He believed the dead should be treated with respect. On the other hand, he kept his job (which was his second job) a secret from his wife for some years. How did he manage that?
He’s a man I can really imagine dreaming of a life after killing hundreds, including the Nazi war criminals he hanged in batches. He had a grocer’s shop, then kept a pub. A tidy, respectable man, by all accounts.
The family business
Albert Pierrepoint took just seven seconds to whisk
James Inglish from his cell. Strapped, hooded, noosed;
pin pulled. Dispatched. Fastest English hanging ever.
Rehearsed for hours before he’d throw the lever.
Measuring, and calculation; cursive annotations
in his neat, ruled notebook; Height, Weight, Length of chain.
Comments: necks ‘ordinary’, ‘very strong’, ‘long’, ‘thin’.
He’d need to be punctilious. They’d strangle
if he got it wrong or, worse, a head torn off.
Newly married, he’d thought best not tell the wife
about his other job. Paid attention to the books;
kept a tidy shop; careful how he weighed out sugar, flour,
wrapped lard and ham. Always a clean collar,
a nicely knotted tie. A line ruled between two lives
as separate as the cell from its adjacent twelve foot
brick-lined drop; as the quick from the dead. Took
pains to show the dead respect. Sponged clean, dressed
decently for burial. Professional to the last.
Strapped, hooded, noosed. Pin pulled. Dispatched.
I think this is the man that Timothy Spall discovered when he played him (wonderfully) in the film. As I say, I think he’s a man you could write a ‘swineherd’ poem about. No one’s sent me a hangman yet. There’s time . Here comes a candle to light you to bed. Here comes a chopper ………xx
Both of these poems should be in triplets. WordPress has twice set its face resolutely against stanza breaks. If it happens again, you’ll have to imagine triplets. On the other hand, it might be an improvement.