Edward Thomas and Two of His Friends

Last weekend I was asked to talk briefly about Edward Thomas at an event at the Palmers Green Library in north London. This year is the centenary of his death and I looked at one of my favourite poems, ‘The Sun Used to Shine’. I have written in close detail about it in an earlier blog so I have excised most of my comments about the poem itself from this current post. I hoped to take the audience’s attention to the poem, to Thomas’ life in 1914/17 and then bring them to more contemporary poetry with a couple of my own poems which are thoroughly imbued with Thomas tropes – inspired by his work and life. 

 

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Edward Thomas and Helen Thomas

Edward Thomas died at the Battle of Arras on the 9th April 1917. One hundred years and 5 months ago. It has long been thought that he died from a nearby shell blast stopping his heart and his watch, on that Easter Monday. But a couple of years ago, the discovery of a letter from his commanding officer suggested he had been actually ‘shot clean through the chest’. It was perhaps a sanitised version of his death delivered to his wife, Helen, that gave rise to the attractively poetic myth of his ‘clean’ death.

But so much about Thomas has a similar mist of uncertainty about it. He shares with his great friend and poet, Robert Frost, a liking for the word ‘something’ – a thing that is unspecified or unknown, a description or amount being stated but not exactly. This is partly what makes him a modern writer (though his main subject material – the natural world – might make him seem otherwise).

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But he’s also modernist in that he can be emotionally reticent, guarded, suspicious. In a letter to his wife a few days before he was killed he wrote: “I know that you must say much because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just, as it were, tunnelling underground and something (that word again!) sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun [. . .] If I could respond to you as you would like me to [. . . ] I should be unable to go on with this job”. You might think such guardedness was just a war-time effect. But a poem like ‘No one so much as you’ – written in 1916, surely to his wife – says: “My eyes scarce dare meet you”.

His difficulties with loving were certainly related to his bouts of depression. He suffered dark, suicidal periods, infamously taking a revolver with him into the woods intending not to reappear. In the poem ‘Beauty’ he writes:

 

What does it mean? Tired, angry, and ill at ease,

No man, woman, or child alive could please

Me now. And yet I almost dare to laugh

Because I sit and frame an epitaph –

‘Here lies all that no one loved of him

And that loved no one.’

 

The poem eventually finds some sense of relief in the natural world. Note here the uncertainty in both what it is in him that seeks happiness and what it is that seems lost to him:

 

This heart, some fraction of me, happily

Floats through the window even now to a tree

Down in the misting, dim-lit, quiet vale,

Not like a pewit that returns to wail

For something it has lost, but like a dove

That slants unswerving to its home and love.

 

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Thomas and Frost

 

Because it’s one of his best, I’m going to look at Thomas’ poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ written in May 1916. There is no straining between subject and technique. Its moods shift continually from companionship, to thoughts of war, to an historical sense, to an almost cosmic sense of time. So it travels great distances without departing far from the English countryside that provided Thomas with its beginnings. Nor does it depart far from ordinary language – it has a surface accessibility. It’s held together by a human voice – quiet, questing, informed about nature as well as history, one willing to contemplate existential questions.

[. . .]

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By the time the poem was being written, it was more than a year after the Frosts had sailed for New York. Thomas is mourning a lost era as much as a lost friend. Perhaps no surprise that he had Tennyson in mind as he wrote. In Memoriam is Tennyson’s tribute to his lost friend, Arthur Hugh Hallam. In section 89, Thomas found a model and images of friendship, the English landscape, ripe fruit, running water, long walks, long talks – a kind of lost Paradise:

 

The landscape winking thro’ the heat:

 

O sound to rout the brood of cares,

The sweep of scythe in morning dew,

The gust that round the garden flew,

And tumbled half the mellowing pears!

[. . .]

Nor less it pleased in livelier moods,

Beyond the bounding hill to stray,

And break the livelong summer day

With banquet in the distant woods;

 

Whereat we glanced from theme to theme,

Discuss’d the books to love or hate,

Or touch’d the changes of the state,

Or threaded some Socratic dream;

[. . .]

We talk’d: the stream beneath us ran,

The wine-flask lying couch’d in moss,

[. . .]

And brushing ankle-deep in flowers,

We heard behind the woodbine veil

The milk that bubbled in the pail,

And buzzings of the honied hours.

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Such similar quiet acknowledgements of landscape, of time present and past, of friendship are some of the themes which draw me to Thomas’ work. Another of his friends was Jesse Berridge. The depth of this friendship is revealed when Berridge writes – this in the Spring of 1947 (fully 30 years after Thomas’ death at Arras) – of dreaming of the poet:

In my dream he was coming down a road, in loose dark clothes, to meet me, with his long purposeful stride and his face alight with pleasure and gaiety. Well I knew that look on his face, and here and now I would give testimony that I did know very many hours in his company, and in by far the greater part of them he was happy, sometimes with an almost bewildering intensity.

Here (if I may) is a poem of my own, drawing on material from Berridge’s memoir of Thomas which I hope captures some of the pleasures the poet shared with Berridge and before that with Frost. The opening detail about the church at Kilve in Somerset, is referred to in Wordsworth’s poem ‘Anecdote for Fathers’ (1798) included in Lyrical Ballads, obviously a favourite with Thomas and Berridge:

 

These things I remember                               

after Jesse Berridge

 

That afternoon on the beach at Kilve

we had ascertained

there was no weather-cock on the church

and we were resting in peace

almost in silence when he turned

and told me to listen

to the little melodious twittering

of a tiny bird that swooped and dipped

between where we sat and the roiling ocean—

a meadow pipit he said

the moment was unforgettable then

as he so often made such things

calling attention to this or that aspect

of what I call his vision

as one morning he cut a walking-stick

from the woods then carved

until it had a character of its own

or the knife I’ve owned almost sixty years

its bone handle chafed

and worn by my touch

until the white has begun to show through

for him held a peculiar fascination

till obscurely I began to feel

it possessed of a soul

that nothing but his observation of it

had created and I remember my children

always delighted in his occasional visit

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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Thomas and Berridge would often cycle the English countryside together and if you are interested in his extraordinary responses to the landscape I’d recommend In Pursuit of Spring, published in 1914. It was this book that Frost seized on in the summer of 1914 as evidence that Thomas ought to start writing poetry.

There are also personal reasons why I like this book so much – Thomas cycles from the outskirts of London, heading westwards, to the Quantocks. On his way he descends from Salisbury Plain into the Wiltshire where I grew up. Indeed he traces a particular ride along roads I know well. Here he is describing the almost visionary impact of the English countryside:

Motion was extraordinarily easy that afternoon, and I had no doubts that I did well to bicycle instead of walking. [. . .] At the same time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be. I was not at all tired, so far as I knew. No people or thoughts embarrassed me. I fed through the senses directly, but very temperately, through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit (so to call it) was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death. In fact, had I to describe the adventure of this remnant of a man, I should express it [. . .] with no need of help from Dante [. . .] Supposing I were persuaded to provide the afterworld with some of the usual furniture, I could borrow several visible things from that ride through Semington, Melksham, and Staverton.

Later, Thomas takes a detour to another place I know well, the village of Tellisford, its ruined water-mill and bridge by the River Frome. There he meets the Other Man, a figure who pops up in the book and who represents Thomas’ alter ego. I’d like to finish with another of my poems which I hope captures a good deal of the spirit of Edward Thomas in its love of English landscape, its sense of history, its longing for companionship, its loneliness and, in its conclusion, its sense, as ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ says, that “Everything / To faintness like those rumours fades”. The old man is a version of Thomas perhaps, or a version of the Other Man, or a version of myself – or all three at once. You might say one of my projects is to convince you that clarity is a chimera.

 

Rebuilding Tellisford weir

turn aside to see Tellisford  – Edward Thomas

                                               

He refuses shade in midday heat

the old man walking

in his honey-brimmed hat

along the drained weir-shelf

 

that looks today like stacked loaves

its pallid smooth ranks

of Victorian stones

mapping precisely the Domesday line

 

where he patrols to and fro

proudly surveying the place he owns

this stretch of England

his plan to restore the workings

 

of the old watermill

to feed the Grid—and it is for this

he has ordered tons of sludge

to be dredged above the drop

 

and dozens of loosened stones

to be replaced to give

the mill-race its full head

and today he walks the slippery length

 

of the dammed weir-shelf

hallooing picnickers

who pull corks from fizzy wines

he cries what marvellous weather

 

then falls to conversation with a couple

who are celebrating sixty years

in their self-built house

with their three good boys

 

raised and schooled to distant homes

though today they recline

on trashy garden chairs

on this riverbank as if to watch

 

the old man in an antique yellow hat

who walks noting progress

on the weir and how could they know

he’s something on his mind

 

for the next hundred years

how could they know more and more

these days he struggles to endure

the roaring of the fish-shoot

 

with its silted water

and these stilted conversations

with such ordinary people

their Diet Coke and egg mayonnaise

 

their crisps for the grandchildren

their Sunday newspapers

let blow and tumble across the meadow

reminding him of himself

 

how his mind often strays

up the ditch-line to the old drovers’ road

where for fifty years

their cars have pinked and purred

 

especially at night as they mount

slowly the gravel verge—

O so many love-cars for so many years

drawn to his father’s land

 

each in pursuit of what the river gives

of moonlight and chance

of the ticking of an engine

as it cools of blonde hair spilling

 

across dark seats in disarray

he knows the windows rolled to the dusk

the sickly smell of water

the murmur within and talk

 

when it’s over though he knows well

it is never really over—

and it’s because of this

he will not turn them away

 

although they holler and soil and litter

still he’d grant them every wish

it’s for this his feet edge now across

the weir-shelf this afternoon

 

for this he takes his uneasy stand

hands thrust in his pockets

their cars pulling in to the dark hiss

of white gravel everywhere loosening

(from The Lovely Disciplines, Seren 2017)

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My Grief Observed – May 2017

This week, I sat down to write a thinking piece about C S Lewis’ brief memoir about his wife’s death, A Grief Observed (published under the pseudonym N W Clerk by Faber in 1961), when this happened instead.

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My father died – I’m shocked at the passage of time – just over 8 weeks ago. At the age of 97, it was hardly unexpected though to be honest I had anticipated my mother (age 95 this month and seemingly physically far more frail) to be the first to leave the world. Though hardly unexpected it was still a surprise. It happened late at night – I’d travelled back to London thinking he was stable enough. By the time I’d returned the next day to the Care Home in Wiltshire, the undertaker had already taken him away. There were so many distractions, things to sort out, though we’d already sold the family home and his affairs were as simple as can be for a man with two savings accounts, a couple of State benefits and an utterly derisory works pension.

I did decide to visit him in the undertakers’ so-called chapel of rest. I’m not sure this was about saying goodbye – though circumstances had meant I hadn’t done this in any conscious way. The assistant took me into a little hallway where a door stood open, some classical music playing. A wooden chair and a table with a vase of flowers were all to be seen in the hallway. I have no recall of the music or the type of flowers. I was taken aback when she explained that some people prefer simply to sit outside the ‘chapel’ rather than go in to view the body. I felt reassured somehow that such a reluctance was not something I was feeling and it would be a sort of cowardice if I did. I felt brave, or just a bit braver. I was doing this for Dad. Though her observation then made me re-consider. Maybe I was really anxious, even fearful, about seeing him. I sat in the chair outside for a few minutes to see how it felt.

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Hilperton, 1954

It felt pointless. I was here to see him and to have done with it. I edged round the open door. The coffin was deliberately around the corner, out of sight until you got well into the room. It filled an alcove, supported at waist height, I supposed, on some sort of trestle. I’m enough my Dad’s son to think of such things. Later on, after I’d sat a while in the chapel I started looking – as he would have done – at the structure of it. It was just a plain room, almost certainly separated off from an original larger room. There was an RSJ across the width of it. Perhaps there was another such ‘chapel’ next door. Semi-detached. Like the house Dad had lived in. In fact, the one he’d help build in the mid-1950s. I was taken there at the age of one. I left there to go to university at the age of 18. We’d sold it for more than we’d expected about a month earlier. Semi-detached.

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? 1929

They’d put a crucifix on the wall above the coffin. Or rather, the cross was a fixture on the wall. Other coffins in series had lain beneath it. Dad always had a dislike of religion. I never could get to the bottom of why. Born in 1920 you’d have thought it would have been just part of the landscape he grew up in. Was it rammed down his throat to the point of the need to vomit it back up again? Was there something in his war years that made him see through it so vigorously that – even into his 90s – he never found a way back? His wife was quietly non-conformist, mostly Methodist. I’m sure she would have attended church in these more recent years (her younger sister regularly did). I’m sure she stayed away because of his hatred of it. Now here he lay under a crucifix in an inappropriately ‘holy’ setting with such tasteful lighting. Hurrumph, he might have said. Words were not his thing. I never showed him this little poem:

 

Words and things

 

Past ninety and still no books to read

your knuckles rap the laid table

 

gestures beside a stumble of words

so much aware of their inadequacy

 

it hurts us both in different ways

since a man without language is no man

 

finding too late this absence of words

builds a prison you’re no longer able

 

to dominate objects as once you did

the world turns in your loosening grip

 

I still feel a bit guilty about having written it. Agenda published it originally. It’s just appeared in my new book. But no – he never saw it. I made sure of that.

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North Africa

I looked at him in his box. My brother and I had decided not to dress him in his own clothes. His only suit was so old and shabby and he had little else that we thought was suitable (why did we agonise over it – I was the only person who knew him to see him in this state anyway). Oh for his old suit! He was dressed in a sky blue silk number, a ludicrous ruff about the neck: a sort of choir boy outfit. My main impression was of the newness of the cloth of the robe, its strong vibrant colour against the chilly greyness of what must lie underneath if his hands were anything to go by.

Then at last, I looked directly into his face. I’d been reading Lampedusa’s The Leopard and at the end of the novel, the dying Prince, Don Fabrizio, looks at himself in the mirror and wonders why “God did not want anyone to die with their own face on?” The last time I’d seen Dad was after he’d been brought out of hospital, back to the Care Home where he lay sleeping for hours on a mattress on the floor (to stop him rolling off and injuring himself). He puffed and blew a good deal, eyes shut. He rummaged his legs to and fro, tying the bed sheet in knots. But he never woke. In those hours, it seemed to be him. I sat beside him with my mother. I held his cold hand and repeatedly told him we were there, we were there for him, he was OK, he was not in hospital (god how he hated hospitals!).

But the face looking up out of the coffin seemed to be somebody else. Hard to tell what was plain natural death, what was the undertaker’s art, what the lighting, what my weird state of mind. All the clichés about the waxy, smooth look of the dead are true. His Crucefix nose – always fairly prominent – launched from his sunken cheeks and bony brow skywards. His chin – which in life was always weak and receding – also thrust forward and up in the most unnatural way. What had they done? What had they packed his jaw with to achieve this cartoon effect? His mouth with its pencil thin lips (plenty of times I thought them mean lips) was shut very tightly. I wondered if it was sewn shut? I wondered if they had left his dentures in? His eyelids – which in those last few hours of puffing and blowing, had often been leaking open, a segment of watery eye visible though no inner sight seemed ever to have registered – his eyelids now were also tightly bound. Closed down. Closed down long before the undertaker’s craft took hold. Now physically closed down to reflect the inner closing down that had taken place in my absence.

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?1939

As I stood beside the coffin and looked down, I had the powerful sense that he was not there. Not merely that this did not resemble the man I knew but more than that – he, in himself, was not there. He had departed the physical form that lay there more or less recognisable. I don’t think he was elsewhere. I’ve been with him on that bit of religion for decades now. But I still felt some relief. On his behalf perhaps. Recently he had been more muddled and fearful, obsessive about some things, angry about others. Life seemed to have very few pleasures left; lots of panicky moments, angry self-hatred, suspicions of people, distrust, downright fright. He was no longer living in that horrid morass. That must be some relief.

He was not there. But the hands, propped also choir boy style on his chest, clutching incongruously a white rose, were definitely still his. Emerging out of the stupid silky blue sleeves, the long bony hands were still familiar. How they used to float vaguely, not elegantly, but sometimes delicately, trying to add whatever was always lacking from his words, wafting to and fro following the right and left turns to the municipal dump, to the only local shop not closed down, to the bus stop (their life-line into town).

I never once touched him. I thought of the coldness. The lack of give, of elasticity. I didn’t think he’d mind. We seldom touched in life. But I did talk to him. I said I was there. I said goodbye. Those two things over and over again. My eyes and throat filled as I tried to say them aloud.

In the end there was no more to do. He was not there. I was in a room with a box and some kitschy lighting. I sidled back out round the door. I looked back in, feeling, of all things coquettish, as if I might surprise him about to move, to sit up and grin, it was all a joke. No. He was not there. He was not coming back. Not this way.

I went out through the hallway, past the flowers again, the music receding, out into the front room of the undertaker’s shop. The assistant was not around. I gathered my bags and left. The daylight was white. Two men were slumped nearby drinking from tin cans. They looked up at me. I suppose they had seen the door I’d come out of. Perhaps I had death all over me. The High Street seemed tissue-thin, like a poor stage-set. Everybody else actors. I walked down it, then back up, unsure where to go. In the end, I sat in a pub for an hour over two pints of bitter. My train was not till around 6pm. I passed the time googling an old girl-friend’s name.

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April 2017

 

 

 

Let Me Murmur a Few Spells for My Mother

I have spent these last several days in Wiltshire as my mother has had a fall and broken her hip. Dad is not able to look after himself around the house so we are trying to patch things as best we can for a couple of weeks. She says her feet got muddled as she turned from the microwave and went down hard on one side. The ambulance (from Bath, in these days of centralised medical care) took an appalling 2 hours to reach her. She seems pretty well considering she’s in her 90s but now the ward has been closed to all visitors due to an outbreak of Novovirus in the hospital. I have an atavistic sense that muttering a few spells about her, in trying to describe her in younger more vigorous days might help her recovery (and it sort of helps me too).

*

I am lifted then strapped into the child’s seat on the rear carrier of Mum’s bike. I remember the simple folding mechanism: the two sides inwards, then the back-rest folding forwards on top. She opens it and settles me in while the bike leans in the Passage (the covered pathway along one side of the house, outside the back door). Then I am wheeled out, up the front garden path, a little bump up the step onto the public path, now right and out to the main road. My limbs vividly remember the sense of her scooting for a few feet, gathering speed, then a more violent wobble to either side as she kicks off, begins to balance, threading her right leg through the bike frame onto the peddle. Steadying now, speeding up, the sense of her wide hips beginning to roll there before my face as we start to bowl along, lean into the left hand corner into Horse Road, heading for Trowbridge.

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Perhaps we go to the old market hall. I have the sensation of progressing through it, through the high wrought-iron ribbed roof of the echoing hall with stalls of all kinds around. Then Mum and I emerge into sunlight out of the rear door which overlooks the old cattle market which is suddenly right there, spread out beneath us. There are steps down to the lower level; all the sounds of animals and people welling up from below. It seems a huge and dizzying prospect, an image of a far wider and utterly unmanageable society to a child unused to such things.

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I am moving or more likely being moved in a push chair or (again) on the back seat of Mum’s bike, in through the rectory gate that stands at the corner of Church Street, across from the main gate of St James’ Parish Church. Little more than a sensation of broad lawns with a grand old house beyond them and in the foreground a gathering of people – women mostly, with their high voices – around trestle tables at some sort of sale, perhaps cakes. Perhaps it has been organised by the Young Wives group that meets in the strange narrow gothic building – accessed by a worn flight of steps – across the road.

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The Young Wives is more of a play group really. We go there each week and probably I have been there today but now I am being taken to the rectory, though whether we are going to buy or to help behind the stalls I don’t know. This is where the poet George Crabbe lived the last 18 years of his life as parish vicar, inspired to write whilst sitting under the mulberry tree in these rectory grounds. In one of the town’s earlier, spasmodic efforts at self-harm, the building was summarily demolished in 1964, only a year or two after this memory of the broad lawns of Crabbe’s old house.

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There is a photograph of her around the same time. We must have walked across the main road, down the lane to Oatley’s farm and then on to where the Kennet and Avon canal crosses the flat landscape. Dad has carried a deck chair or perhaps two and set it down, rakishly on the lowest rung for his wife who reclines in her white blouse and flowered skirt. A grassy field stretches into the distance – the shape of a cow, the field edged by darker trees, a brick wall and the whitewashed gable end of a house.

*

The sky is white so there is really no distinction between the upper part of the picture and the thick white border of the print. I am on her lap. Her right hand is at my back, her left reaching towards me as I seem to be twisting away to look at something out of view. Her gaze is fixed on me, mine is fixed elsewhere. Perhaps Andrew is running too far off. Or a bee is buzzing too close in what must be the summer heat. My 1960s children’s top seems the same pure white as hers but in the instant of the shutter falling all my energies are directed beyond the invisible white frame.

Me and Mum

There is knocking at the back door and Mum moves hurriedly, perhaps glancing a moment into the mirror on her way to open it. A figure blocks the light, wearing a brown overall or a working coat of some kind, over his right arm a huge wicker basket. Over his other shoulder, a worn leather money bag is slung. In the basket are loaves and rolls of all sorts. On a different day, a small grocer’s van is pulling up, its rear doors open and the smell of earthy potatoes spills out to where I stand, knuckles pressed to Mum’s skirt. Onions are like dusky suns, cabbages dripping with moisture and in the winter there are brussel sprouts, mushrooms still wrapped in the cold dark in which they grew. Other afternoons, a honking from the main road and the same flurry from Mum which – in hindsight – has something of a woman preparing to meet a lover about it. The callers are always men, punctuating her long days at home with the children, bringing gossip, simple treats, decisions to be made and a little flirting, merely oiling the wheels of commerce.

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Tuesday it’s the Co-op van stopping right outside our house. A folding step or two up into the back of the van, a high counter flap, an array of colours I can barely see. This must also have been the van that brought the pink paraffin for the living-room heater that clanked resonantly when moved and emitted a harsh warmth and oily fumes when lit. More on my diminutive level, the paraffin for sale flowed from a large container into a can Mum brought with her from the outhouse – a pink ribbon twisting and glinting like pop, its acrid smell the only sign of its poisonous combustibility.

*

Her calm rooted in humility – despite her evident brains and the few brief opportunities to exercise them. Her fear of upsetting the balance of a greater world. Her reluctance, as she will often express it while we are children, of ‘saying boo to a goose’. Shy certainly – but her social background was always part of that baggage. Extraordinary that this worked in partnership with his restive nature. That in part due to the pressures of disappointed expectations. Yet also driven by his reluctance to remain too long in one place, to forestall unwelcome thoughts, questions that might slow the skittering across the surface of himself from one completed DIY job to the next.

*

And now without her presence and without the holdfast of his own memory he skitters more and more out of control. All families nurture and elaborate their own particular myths for the hard times ahead.

How to write about ‘sacred objects’

Recently, I spent a weekend at the house I now know as ‘Wiltshire’. It’s where I grew up through the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. I’ve been living elsewhere for so many years now and ‘home’ is in north London so the old county name suffices in most conversations to communicate what I mean: ‘I’m going back to stay in the house of my childhood’.

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I’m doing the pedaling here – circa 1960

My parents still live there, both into their 90s, but managing with a little help to live independently. (See my earlier blog on memory and nostalgia here) It’s what has happened there over the years that makes me want to label it ‘sacred’ ground. From the Latin ‘sacer’ meaning holy, the word originally meant connected with God, sanctioned by religion, a valorisation that was religious rather than secular, a value determined from outside the sphere of the self and in the Latin words ‘sacerdos’ and ‘sanctum’ implying something cut off from the mundane, something distant.

But even in the continuing absence of any religious sense in my life, certainly any external religious authority that might determine this or that object or action as ‘sacred’ I still want to use the word – even as I confess this is a value determined solely by my own view of the world. But I do think that my sense of the ‘sacred’ is coupled with the passage of time. I don’t think anything can be instantly ‘sacred’. It has to be re-examined, worn, re-visited.

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My Dad is well into that phase of old age when he wants to give everything away. There has never been very much to give, of course, and recently he has taken to wandering round the car-empty garage, picking out old tools and rather hopelessly asking myself and my two brothers whether we have any need of them, because he doesn’t any longer. The answer is really ‘no’ but occasionally I relent not to appear too ungrateful. However, on my last visit, I’d broken my flimsy Homebase-bought garden fork a couple of weeks earlier, trying to lever out a slab of paving. So when Dad offered me his old fork I took it.

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It’s unpromising material for sacred eminence but because his hands have held it for over 60 years, wearing the shaft smooth, because his muscles and the instep of his right foot have pressed and shoved and pulled at it over that length of time it makes the grade. Sacredness is sort of metonymic here then. It stands for him. This is something I respond to in Seamus Heaney’s poems, in particular the first part of ‘Mossbawn’, dedicated to his aunt, Mary Heaney. (Read the full poem here)

Reading it over again I’m struck by its focus on particular ‘sacred’ objects – the “helmeted pump”, the “slung bucket”, the warm wall, the bakeboard, the stove projecting its “plaque” of heat (that perfect choice of word suggestive of decorative and commemorative without becoming over-blown or monumental). His aunt’s actions and her domestic implements are likewise noted and linguistically nailed (the poet’s precision echoes his aunt’s):

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

The final quatrain reverses the more usual order of figurative language to begin with the abstraction which is said to be “like” the actual object, love embedded in its everyday setting as much as the meal scoop is submerged, absorbed, integral to the meal bin, sustaining domestic life:

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

Heaney performs this magic in the present tense (a fact he rather flaunts with that “Now [. . .] now”) despite it being evidently a long-harboured, cherished memory. What might have been lost to the ravages of time is brought back into the present. I like to note that the word ‘holy’ dates back to the 11th century and the Old English word ‘hālig’, an adjective derived from hāl meaning “whole”, used to mean “uninjured, sound, healthy, entire, complete”. Lacking the authority of an external God, what is sunk deep into our past lives can be simultaneously brought back into the present, whole and holy, and this is what we might designate as ‘sacred’.

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One object from ‘Wiltshire’ I once managed to write about is the garden gate. You can just glimpse it in the background of the picture above. The adult is my own aunt (not really an aunt but my mother’s best friend). I’m on the left of her here. The poem originated in workshop exercises directed by Myra Schneider (her website is here) a few years ago now. With thanks to her, what follows is my own formulation of her process.

  1. This is an exercise in memory and tapping into feelings surrounding specific objects. It seems to work for most people and I have tried it among school children as well as with experienced writers.
  2. List a few – 2 or 3 – objects which have significance to you. They may be possessions, objects once possessed now lost, toys, gifts, even houses or rooms, but try to think of specific objects – your sense of it needs to be precise rather than diffuse.
  3. From your list select one you feel now particularly drawn to
  4. Now write a description of it. Try to avoid infusing it with any particular feeling – the more objective the better to begin with.
  5. Now underline a few phrases in what you have written which you find interesting.
  6. Now write more freely around your object, allowing in specific memories and feelings which perhaps cluster around this object, people associated with it.
  7. Again underline particular phrases and passages you like.
  8. From all this material, especially what you have underlined, try to assemble a more finished piece.

And here’s my poem – originally published in ‘An English Nazareth’ (2004)

The gate

was inch-tubular for economy’s sake,

a post-war issue for a self-built house –

Hammerite black now, but once white,

 

earlier cream, its soft curves and corners

a rough square between cement gate-posts.

A big-thumbed latch on the left,

 

beside it, a schematic sun-rise of tubing,

beneath, the squared-off wire grid

I’d work my toes into, find the springy dip

 

of my weight on the straining hinges,

hook in elbows and I’d swing, I’d swing.

Then a jarring crash and decrescendo:

 

the muddy-booted, casual back-heel

of my brother after football on the grass.

Gentle click-clank of the sneck as Mum

 

bent to secure it with as much care as

she shook slippy fried eggs onto my plate.

The half-way firm, suddenly stunned

 

impact as Dad’s hand swiped, held shut –

his sluggish pirouette and up the path,

coming home with an empty Thermos.

 

And then me, arms shaking at the ridges

of concrete under my trike, Dad stooping

to frame the cream gate, the hedge beyond,

 

the telegraph wires converging on clouds,

wires dividing the bright air at my every

effort to remember until it appears

 

all that muddle of love has so long gone

unremarked between us, there is no need

to hearken to it, though a bad day shows

 

every possible latch broken while another

is effortless, finds the point of purchase

into the give and spring and swerve and space.

                                                                

Old Stokes’ Garden Nursery 1970 – 2014

An interruption to blog-casting over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been away from the desk, here and there, partly in Wiltshire visiting my 90-year old parents.

I’ve long understood that one of my triggers as a writer is the simple disparity between ‘then’ and ‘now’. I have grown convinced that an individual’s mental health is partly dependent on the free flow of thoughts and feelings between personal present and past, the integration of personality, a sense of coherence, or organic change, over time. There has been a good deal of research recently on the idea of nostalgia as a healing force (hence some of these dips into autobiographical mode) and I’d like to talk more about that sometime. But for today, while staying in Wiltshire, I came face to face with a pretty powerful example of this disparity between past and present. Here it is:

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OK – it’s not much to look at, but this is the final route of the Hilperton Relief Road, designed to take traffic away from the village where I grew up in Wiltshire. My father has been praying for this to happen for years, convinced the thundering, articulated transports that pass the house originate solely from ‘the Continent’. It’s true they do have to manoeuvre through the village itself, but the route cuts across green fields just a stone’s throw from the little village church of St Michael and All Angels, fields where I’d mooch about as a kid with friends from the self-build estate of Marshmead.

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So a personal wound to my memory – but also an ecological blow to the rural area. Within a few years – though the local authority currently denies this – the meadows surrounding this new road will be filled in with houses and the ghastly sprawl of Trowbridge town will engulf another village. More lucrative land for developers is the prime motivation for building the road after all these years. More personally, on the bulldozed soil in the first photograph once stood a few ramshackle buildings, little more than large garden sheds and fogged, filthy-windowed greenhouses. This was the site of Stokes’ Garden Nursery where I worked a few hours a week at the start of the 1970s.

Stokes’ Nursery is on the left at the far end of Horse Road as you head into town. I cycle along there one Sunday and find Old Stokes out in the open, moving up and down the sunlit rows of chrysanthemums, lifting the still-tight flower heads to examine them, pinching off a browned leaf here and there. It appeals to me – the money and the work.

The following Sunday, on my first morning, he musters a smile of sorts in greeting. He is bent with age, rather hump-backed and moves with a limp. His head is small and round, a few wisps of grey hair, and he purses his lips so that in speaking there is a faint lisp. But he doesn’t often speak and I like that.

I begin reliably turning up and taking his cash, at first just Sundays then Saturday mornings as well. I find myself beginning to identify with him in little ways. His wife is invisible. Their detached house is set off to one side of the grounds where he has several glass houses and outdoor growing areas. The house always appears deserted, with the curtains closed for the most part. Nothing moves or changes. No-one sees her. Old Stokes never talks about her. I never ask. She suffers from agoraphobia, or so my Mum tells me.

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One morning, he leads me through the rickety door of the main glasshouse into its humid, stuffy other world, reeking of compost, plant rot, fertilizer, cell division. “Pricking out”, he murmurs and I wonder if I have heard him right. At an earthy metal bench, backed with a window so filthy nothing can be seen but a fuzz of sunlight, we stand side by side and he shows me what to do. The seedlings are new-grown in their first trays and each has to be gently teased out of the loose soil and away from its clinging companions. Then each spindly seedling, green leafed, pale-stemmed, white-rooted, is tucked into a new hole (drilled by the ‘dibber’) in a newly prepared tray. Pricking out is boring and brainless. It’s not something I am unhappy doing, bearing in mind I am getting paid a few shillings – after February 1971, thirty or forty pence – to do so.

But I prefer watering; lugging the python-like, yellow hoses up and down the glass house aisles, pulling the trigger on the hose attachment and spraying water everywhere, dampening the already humid atmosphere. Soon I am promoted to patrolling the rows of vigorous chrysanthemums, lifting the heavy weights of the flower heads, picking out ear-wigs where I find them, dispatching them with a curt rolling of my thumb and finger. Crouching down between the rows, I disappear completely from the view of anybody passing along Horse Road. Crouched there, I am in a manageable jungle, happy to be alone, often bringing my family’s old blue transistor radio with me, listening to Noel Edmonds (from October 1971), his Sunday morning slot from 10-12. His kind of drippy folk-rock is (I’m afraid) what I like to listen to and David Gate’s songs like ‘Diary’ and ‘Baby I’m-a want you’. McCartney’s first solo album is being played. Cat Stevens has released ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ the year before and ‘Teazer and the Firecat’ in the autumn.

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Twenty years later, in my first book from Enitharmon Press, Beneath Tremendous Rain, I published a triptych of poems about Old Stokes, his wife and the boy working for them. Here are the two best ones:

The Nurseryman

See how my wife hasn’t bothered to open

the curtains. It’s three o’clock. She must be bad.

She thinks I don’t know what it costs her

to steal a glance at me outside, to brave

these fifty feet of open space, her weak legs

trembling with terror, sick in her belly,

knotting ever closer round her poor heart . . .

I’ll cut some chrysanthemums to please her.

My flowers always please her.

Years ago she’d tell me how it felt.

She’d say a bulb will sometimes come up blind

no matter how carefully you’ve set it down.

It’s the way of plants. There’s no cure at all.

But it’s not only her. Still poor as Adam,

there’s just one thing I have that’s in demand

and it’s not right that a man who’s spent life

tending soil into flower should gain nothing

but a touch for dressing death in glad rags

with some careful blooms on a wire frame . . .

I’ve found a natural talent for wreathes.

My one extravagance:  that I can charge

higher prices than most and though Christmas

is a boon (when my great medals hang on

many bolted doors), yet it’s the year-round trade

in bereavement that keeps this place afloat.

I’d plans once. A shop, new green-houses, a son.

Now I’m forced to take on a series of young lads

who help me out. They’re all more or less sullen.

This one’s so quiet, although he chats to girls

across the hedge, as they all have done –

all playing the working-man, hands dirtied,

with the jangle of my money in their pockets.

This one trails his radio around all day long

as if he can’t stand the sound of himself.

Doesn’t work hard. See where he goes now,

slipping down beside the sheds. No radio today.

Well, he’s happy enough on one-fifty an hour . . .

I must cut some chrysanthemums to please her.

The Wife

I sit beside my beautiful maidenhair fern.

It likes my darkness, is dank, spreads slowly.

I count my books, silent on their long shelves.

I’m dying of pure old age, not experience.

I was not always so understanding – accusations

and resentment shouted him into the garden.

We have not given each other all we’d hoped.

I name children, true pleasure, company . . .

I’ve felt such horror at what lies beyond

the window, where even clothes on the line,

blown by an uncontrollable wind, cardigans

undone and swept open, slacks kicked wide

are too much to bear. He has devoted himself

too much to the fertility of row upon row

of plants and had less and less for me.

But we’re past the allotment of blame.

For years, he’d bring chrysanthemums

to me and watch like a child while I shook

earwigs in the sink, flushed them out of sight.

An absurd ritual I long for, absurdly,

since it ended these past four or five years

before the hedge was removed to make beds

of carnation. And we’ve no boys now –

as if a supply-line had suddenly gone dry.

Don’t parents have children nowadays?

They all blur into one – that particular one

who left quickly. Why do I think of him?

He’s forgotten me. Does he have a wife?

And a child? I remember descending the stairs,

past the grave-quiet telephone, with a jug

of water in my hand. I thought I heard

one of the cats, opened a sliver of curtain.

I would do this all over again . . .

See the boy slumped against the shed

legs crooked and splayed, one hand flickering

on his belly as if dealing a deck of cards –

but with such unrestrained violence.

He saw me. Gave the look of one who has been

interrupted – annoyance, much more than

the guilt I’d expect. I dropped the curtain,

then wanted to open it again – and it’s that

which fills me now when I think of ‘life’

and then I see myself – the dry, pressed flower

I found once in a borrowed library book,

squeezed out now, frightened of the light.

Telstar (August 1962)

Play this while you read ….

Listening to the radio on an August Sunday evening, while Mum irons in the sitting room. She is waiting for Sing Something Simple, its opening verse in sickly sweet harmony: ‘Sing something simple/ As cares go by / Sing something simple / Just you and I’.

We seem to be grouped round, very close, all five of us. I am sitting high up to the wooden bureau which then stood on the back wall. Perhaps I am drawing or writing and the blue and white radio with its plastic round dial and padded plastic blue back is standing on top. Before Mum’s programme comes on, we catch the end of another, hear a record being played. This music begins like some mistake, crackling and buzzing as if the clumsy tuning dial on the radio has been nudged but eventually and incongruously a tambourine or hi-hat is tapping somewhere, electric guitars are labouring up a scale to a climax and the main tune begins to a galloping drum beat, instantly hummable on guitar and electric organ: da-da dah, da-di-da-di-da-dah.

Dad is trying to explain that the opening buzzing and hissing really is a satellite relay tuning in and I believe it – maybe he does too – and my thoughts are off into the air as the melody repeats itself, urging upwards in later sections which twangle in a more unearthly fashion and – despite a horrible earthen, earth-bound lurch to a higher key later – the climactic growling male voice – ah-ah-ahh, ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ahh – sends me away into a faux modern state of mind.

I’m not sure I am envisaging anything you’d call space – its blackness, cold and starry – but something far looser, more ill-defined, one place sending messages across distance to another; long empty spaces, but spaces more my familiars.

The clouds moving in a procession across the big sky to the northwest of our red-roofed house. The width of the darkened fields opposite the house. The canal’s black water. In places, the ripple of stars.