“Let’s face it, you and I
were never wildly optimistic.
Who would be, writing poetry?”
Geoff Tomlinson. Not King David.
(from Poems for Gordon Hodgeon. ed Bob Beagrie et al 2009)
I was not expecting to write this post. I thought I’d post a couple of stocking-fillers while I sorted out what I wanted to share with you in a final ‘catching up piece’. It will be about Martin Malone’s The Unreturning. There’s a dark irony in that, which will become clear as we go along.
I was wondering if I had anything to say, and if there was, if I knew how to say it any more.
The week before last, for four days out of five I was virtually back in St Ives, Zooming in on a much-postponed residential, with Kim Moore and Caroline Bird as tutors. In theory, with relaxations of Covid rules, it could have been a much-postponed actual residential in a real hotel but the Christian Guild small chain of hotels has gone bust. I guess the pandemic was the last straw. That’s Abbot’s Hall in Grange, Willersley castle in Cromford, and the Trelhoyan Hotel in St Ives, all closed. All places where I’ve been entertained and challenged and inspired by Kim Moore’s courses, and by the Poetry Business. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.
And I was struggling. Everyone does, from time to time. It’s not the end of the world; on the other hand it’s no fun, not to respond, not to feel the buzz of making new things with new people. Jess Mookherjee nailed it for me in a Facebook post recently. Amongst other things she wrote about the business of largely working from home in the last 18 months, she wrote this
[I]have become more introverted and atomised
That’s it. The business of being turned in on yourself, and simultaneously fragmented, cut off from the physicality of company and its wonderful unpredictability. To this I’d add the fact of becoming physically more timid.It’s been a thin diet of second hand experience for the last 18 months. The world draws in. I can’t read properly. I’ve lost, for the moment, the ability to surprise myself. Not the best frame of mind in which to approach a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.
However, in the middle of, one way or another, avoiding the truth, and flinching from risk I had a day off. The first trip anywhere beyond the homes of close family for 18 months. A drive to the coast with my partner Flo, to meet up with a former student and great friend, Andy Blackford .
Unnervingly, as we drove over Fylingdales Moor and caught our first sight of the sea, we found ourselves in tears. It caught me on the raw, that feeling that something we’d taken for granted for years should feel extraordinary because it was unchanged. I think, too, it was unnerving to drive through an entirely normal Sandsend, of familiies picnicking on the beach, children paddling, hardy souls swimming. And I still felt shut off from it all, isolated in a self-imposed bubble, not quite sure if I spoke the language of ‘out there’ any more.
We had a fine day with Andy and Sandra, looking out over the harbour, watching small boats coming in trailing clouds of gulls, and catching up….though gradually noticing that what we were catching up on was films we’d watched and books we’d read, because they’d largely replaced the accidents of normal life, the business of going places and bumping into people. Stuff we take for granted, like the first sight of the sea from Fylingdales.
Setting off back home in a sudden cold squally downpour that emptied the harbourside and streets in seconds, as Andy drove us up the main street, I saw the Bethel Chapel was for sale. Which was when I learned that my friend Patrick Scott had died. The stunningly converted chapel is /was his house. Last time I saw him there was at Staithes Art Week, a couple of years ago.
Here he is, full of beans with his wife, Angel. And suddenly I learn he’s died, a month or so ago, of lymphoma.
Patrick was a good friend, at one time the editor of a book I wrote about teaching writing, a fellow member of NATE, one of the generation that revolutionised English teaching in the 70’s. His last post was as Director of Children’s services for York, but earlier he was English Advisor for Cleveland/Teesside, a post that was previously held by another friend and mentor, Gordon Hodgeon . Which explains the the verse from the poem at the beginning. It’s from How things are made. A collection of poems from his friends, a get well card for him when he went into hospital for a spinal operation, which tragically left him paralysed, and eventually speechless. I’ve written at length about Gordon; if you don’t know about his story and his poetry you should. There’s a link at the end of the post. Another friend and inspiration, Andrew Stibbs, (NATE alumnus, former head of English in Cleveland, pioneer of mixed ability teaching, Leeds University lecturer in English in Education, painter, musician, cricketer and gifted poet) had been a member of Brotton Writers with Gordon, and equally a good friend of Patrick. All three have died and I miss them, terribly. All three are bound up with my memories of living and working on Teesside and in working as a teacher-trainer. All three are somehow present whenever I go back, say, to Staithes.
What do I make of it. Here am I, writing a poetry blog. What do I know. I say that poetry lets you say what you can say in no other medium, and that is true, when it’s working. But how does that fit with what I described as a week of writing which set itself to challenge us to explore our self-imposed taboos and preconceptions, to query what we think we mean by the ‘truth’ and to be more daring and take more risks.
I’m approaching what I’ll write next with great caution, because I fear to be misunderstood, and in any case I may be wrong. However. I rejoined my Zoom course the next day, head buzzing, not sure of anything in particular. A bit numb. What to be daring about, what risks to take, and why? Possibly I was feeling oversensitive, but it struck me that what I was being challenged to feel more open about, or to, were issues of gender politics, of sexual identity, of sexual violence. Could I write about a parent’s genitals, for instance. Could I challenge self-imposed taboos? Well, yes, I could, but my heart wasn’t in it, I couldn’t give myself up to the game. I sense I missed the cultural tide, recently. But it’s set me thinking about something I read a long time ago, that the Victorians (officially) couldn’t write about sex but wrote with amazing freedom about death, whereas, since the late 60s exactly the opposite has been the case.
I was brought up to distrust generalisations, but there’s an element of truth in there, isn’t there? I have a sense that we are much more uncomfortable with the physical facts of death and dying than much contemporary poetry acknowledges. It may be, of course, because we know so little about it. When each of my parents died, I wasn’t there, in the house, in the room, and both had been neatly removed before I was told. The whole business, sanitised by the funeral business. That would have been unthinkable in a Victorian household. I have only seen two dead people. One was my son, coffined in a Funeral Directors nicely lit room. The other was in a morgue where I went with my partner to identify another body. I’ve never been able to write about either moment, not properly.
Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I’m chasing ghosts. I should stop.
I say there are no ghosts
though coming on deer in a dip in a moor
when they startle and run
might be like seeing a ghost,
or in woodland where there is too much
of whispering and birds and water.
Worse is a space you long to be filled.
When love is done it is done absolutely.
It does not withdraw. It goes absent.
Whoever saw it go and how?
There is a hole in things, indifferent
to what you do, who you are.
I have sat with the dying
and never encountered death.
I think you have to love someone
enough for someone to die,
you being there, and them
giving you their giving up,
trusting you enough for that.
[From Dark Watchers. Calder Valley Poetry. 2019]
Something strange has gone on with the links, so that some are duplicated. I have not the faintest notion why. Forgive me and the system
Link to Brotton Writers
Guardian obituary for Patrick
Link to Gordon Hodgeon
Link to Andy Blackford