When I see birches bend to left and right Across the lines of straighter darker trees, I like to think some boy’s been swinging them. But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay As ice-storms do. Often you must have seen them Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning After a rain. They click upon themselves As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel. Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust— Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen. They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load, And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed So low for long, they never right themselves: You may see their trunks arching in the woods Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair Before them over their heads to dry in the sun. But I was going to say when Truth broke in With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm I should prefer to have some boy bend them As he went out and in to fetch the cows— Some boy too far from town to learn baseball, Whose only play was what he found himself, Summer or winter, and could play alone. One by one he subdued his father’s trees By riding them down over and over again Until he took the stiffness out of them, And not one but hung limp, not one was left For him to conquer. He learned all there was To learn about not launching out too soon And so not carrying the tree away Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise To the top branches, climbing carefully With the same pains you use to fill a cup Up to the brim, and even above the brim. Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish, Kicking his way down through the air to the ground. So was I once myself a swinger of birches. And so I dream of going back to be. It’s when I’m weary of considerations, And life is too much like a pathless wood Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs Broken across it, and one eye is weeping From a twig’s having lashed across it open. I’d like to get away from earth awhile And then come back to it and begin over. May no fate willfully misunderstand me And half grant what I wish and snatch me away Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better. I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree, And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more, But dipped its top and set me down again. That would be good both going and coming back. One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
Chris knew that Michael was not the same. Physically, he was bigger. He was obviously stronger. That run along the passageway and up the stairs was not something his older brother could have done before. And he did it without breaking sweat or having to catch breath.
Lucy had not said anything as yet, but she had spent her time considering his brother. On the surface, she had been friendly, but beneath, she was unsure. In the short time he had known her, he had begun to measure her reactions to people and situations. His mother also appeared nervous around her son.
“It is a concern,” the voice coming from the stairwell said. “I noticed something from the first moment I set eyes upon you,” said Mr. Dale. “I have seen this before and have since persuaded myself that I did not.”
Chris was confused yet Michael looked on resignedly.
“In my previous role as a man of the cloth, I worked in India. India is suffused with the spiritual and their holy men are granted a status very rarely enjoyed by other mortals.
In that country, especially away from the main towns and cities, people’s lives are governed by a profound belief in the worlds that exist alongside our own. Spirits are to be found in everything from a beetle to a bull.
One day, I had the wife of a local farmer come to me for help. They were members of my church, attended every Sunday, but were also believers in Krishna. I was never absolute in my demands upon the church’s flock. I had this belief that most roads eventually led to God or, in some cases to his nemesis. Her husband had been bitten by a snake and was struggling for his life when a strange happening befell their youngest son. The child started to speak in an old language that nobody in the village understood, we found out later that it was Sanskrit, and the child lay with his father doing battle with the demon within for three days. When I was called, the father had made a miraculous recovery but the child was dreadfully unwell. It was as if he had sucked all the poison out of his father and was now suffering the consequences.
The thing that I noticed above everything else was the vague blue light, an ethereal aura, that encased the child. I saw that with you, Michael.”
“What happened to the boy?” asked Chris.
“I’m afraid he died. I tried everything to save him. Just before he went I read him the last rites, my belief was still stout back then, and he opened his eyes, looked straight into my soul and spoke in English. That was the first time I had heard that. He said that the Piper was awake and then he passed away.”
“What’s that got to do with us?”
“You know what it has to do with us. You’ve seen your brother in that other form. You saw what I saw.
We are living in the time of judgement. I denied it to myself for so long, but now it is inevitable. These are the revelations that are in the Bible and there will be battles. You two are as much our weapons as anything we have found in the armoury.”
Outside a blast of winter rain peppered the windows and roof. In the hills to the north, the rain was falling with more vigour, melting snow and ice and swelling the streams that fed the rivers that flowed out of them.
The following morning, a member of one of the scouting parties saw the first line of leathers on the horizon and the alarm went up.
Could it be just me or is crying in front of a stranger, a strange female, something that most middle-aged men would find acceptable? I did everything that I could do to keep a stiff upper lip. I braced myself. I took deep breaths.
“If you want to cry, it is all part of the process.”
I was part of a process now. I was in the process of working through a personal trauma that had brought me to a crashing standstill and…now I was being asked to cry as some type of cleansing therapy. The problem was that I thought that crying would be just a little distraction. It would be like having leaches placed on an exposed stretch of skin with the intention of them sucking out the corruption. Tears would not do it. I hadn’t even cried at my father’s funeral or at any time since he’d died.
One of my favourite films is Field of Dreams. This, as most of you will know, is a male weepy. There has never been a time when I have watched it that I have been able to control the seepage of emotion.
“Dad, do you want to play catch?”
I can feel the artesian well now, but there is no music, no camera angles and no conclusion to our shared journey. You see, the film was a process in itself. As was my father’s death. The question is, why has the death of my dad come back to haunt me after over five years?
A huge lump of granite lay in my stomach. I was being asked to regurgitate the past. That block of forever granite was there, sentinel, obstructive. My dad was listening to what I was about to say. I heard him sitting in the corner, a shuffle of shoes and a cursory clearing of the throat. It is alright, I wanted to tell him, it is alright, I’m not going to break down. But the tide of emotion was returning from the morning I saw him cold and grey in the sterility of the hospital’s chapel of rest.
“You go, Matthew,” my mother had said. “I can’t look at him.”
She had sat all day and through the night. She had talked and silently sobbed as he waded into the shallows. She held his right hand, closer in this moment than in many a year they had shared before. She was holding his hand when the nurse arrived to check. It wasn’t alright. My mum, trapped in hope, had not noticed the changes on the monitor. She held his hand and squeezed as if to rub some more time into him. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell, and he was, for all intents alive. The nurse moved off quickly and returned with the doctor. By this point, my mother would have been becoming aware. But her husband was breathing. Watch the rising and falling of his chest. He always slept deeply.
“Mrs Evans, I’m sorry but your husband is dead.”
What did they know? He is still breathing. Look at his chest. Look at his chest.
“That’s the respirator, Mrs Evans. It is the respirator that is doing that.”
No, it wasn’t. He was still alive. He was sleeping. Come on Brian, wake up.
I have never seen her so empty as I saw her that morning. I was the dutiful son taking the lead. When I saw him in the chapel of rest, I understood that his passing had left a vacuum in all our lives.
“Dad,” I murmured. “Dad, what are you doing scaring us all like this?”
He didn’t answer. His face was sunken and pale. Death had been with him for some ten hours.
I wanted to be Jesus. Come forth Brian. The stubborn bugger wouldn’t move; he was in a mood with me.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered so that my mum wouldn’t hear me.
I wasn’t really sorry about what I was apologising for but I was sorry that he managed to die before we had properly worked it through. You see, we had argued some months prior to this and had only recently, grudgingly shrugged of the disagreement. And disagreement it certainly was. As our arguments went, this was top by a long score. Every single family factor was brought to the table and every last piece was served in ballistic fashion.
Charlotte had started sitting forward in her chair as I spoke. She was avidly listening but her stance had changed from counsellor to interested participant. She had become the audience and would occasionally stop me to ask for explanation of events and back-stories. Back-stories, I had in abundance.
My dad was born the second youngest of a family of twelve. He had ten brothers and one older sister. By the time he was ten, his father had left the family in search of work. He never returned so it fell upon his mother to bring up the sons. The daughter had married and moved into her own home. At the age of twelve, my dad had to go around to his elder sister’s house with a note. The note informed her that their mother had died suddenly. Norah, the sister, was obliged to take the other siblings under her wing. I gather that she did so with a stoic quality that was common of that age. The war had just ended so there were a lot of people in similar circumstances. War had taken many fathers in the field of
combat whilst enemy bombings had taken a significant number of those who remained at home. A brave new world was at hand and the ones who faced it did so with uncertainty and trepidation. Nevertheless, the worst was over.
I have stories that he told me about his childhood but there aren’t many. I know that a bomb once landed in their back garden after a raid. They discovered it the next morning and put ashes over the offending intruder until the right authority came to deal with it. Ashes? Odd choice.
So, the years that followed were growing up years. He was a bit of a dare-devil and a tearaway. He played rugby to a decent standard. He told me of a brief relationship he had with a married woman and about the ensuing fight he had with her husband. In fact, he had two fights: one with the husband and the husband’s mate in which my dad was beaten up and one when he hunted down his cowardly assailant some months later and gave him a return beating. I was proud of that part of him. After the war, he went to technical college even though he had passed his 11 plus. He was bright, gregarious and sharp as a knife.
“You sound as if you’re proud of your father.”
“I suppose it does. But…” I had to stop and think. “But actually, I often think that I never knew him.”
I’ve noticed with myself in the last couple of years that I have drawn further within the older I get. My wife has noticed it as well. She has told me that I never talk about anything.
“Why do you think that is?”
“What’s the point? It doesn’t solve anything. Nobody notices. It’s like the stuff that people say after a sudden death, “Make the most of every second because you never know when it’s your turn”. The thing is, that it is always going to come around, your time. Somebody has just died since I’ve written that and you’ve read this . Seize the day! What I want to know is how we are supposed to seize it. What are we supposed to be seizing?”
“Do you think they may mean that we should do what we really feel that we should do?”
Charlotte was coaxing out more explanation.
“I think it’s just something that people say as a comforter. When somebody has died, we have a desire that it must make sense. We aren’t just born to die. We are supposed to be creatures that have a higher purpose. It’s supposed to have meaning. What if it was all just nonsense? What if every single thing that we do, every series of events that snake around us, everybody we have ever loved or even hated for that matter, are just accidents of chance. If that is the case, then we are all lost without even knowing it.”
“What do you think?”
She asked me this question, probably aware that I didn’t have an answer. My mind was tumbling with newly sprouted hypotheses but there was nothing firm about it. Mental masturbation is what it was, creating questions and running down pathways, not to reach a climax of understanding but just to play around with the thoughts. The truth of it was that I liked this after-accident evaluation. Part of me was dead and the rest was floating above the scene trying to make sense of it. Nevertheless, just the act of trying to make sense made sense.
To Be Is To Do.
To Do Is To Be.
Do Be Do Be Do.
Cognito ergo sum.
“I think that I don’t know. I think that I will have to think about it some more; and then some. I think that I should sometimes stop thinking and just do, be do be do. My dad never had a problem with discarding deep thinking. He once criticised me for thinking too much about the past. He told me to, “Just get on with today.” I told him that I found that impossible and that I found the past interesting. He said something about dead people and nonsense. I just nodded and turned away. I wonder if he would have ever imagined that I would be thinking about him now all these years after he died?”
Don’t think. Don’t prevaricate. Act.
Act 1 Scene 1
A middle-aged man in a room with a woman. They are sitting facing each other. He has his right leg crossed over the other and is pushed back into his chair. She is sitting slightly forward. She holds a notepad and a pen but she doesn’t write. The man is talking. The woman is listening. Her eyes watch him whilst he looks beyond her into some vague setting.
“Where are you now?” She asks.
I’m back in school. I’ve just played football for the school team and I scored the winning goals.”
“Why do you look so unhappy?”
“My dad never came to see me. I played football lots and scored lots of goals. I was a decent player. Not once, not ever, did my dad come to see me play. How does a father do that to his child? What was he thinking? The thing is that I learnt from him. I learnt how not to be a father. My wife taught me how to be a proper one, a dad and a husband.”
“How does that make you feel?”
“I suppose that it should make me feel angry. I should be full to the brim with resentment. All those years of playing and not once was he there to see me. That was the norm for working class men. Too busy at the club with their mates playing at being lads who never grew up. Never, never. And, do you know what? I do feel something about that which is not anger at him, but guilt for my own self. It was me who was the cause of him not being there. I was a let-down and there was nothing I could do to change his mind. He didn’t come to see me because he wasn’t proud of me so I spent the rest of my life trying to make him proud. That was after I had got over the fact that I once thought that I hated him.”
Lucy had not spoken much to Chris since that terrible day. If his brother had folded in on himself, so had Chris. Lucy thought that it was like a house of cards, when one was taken away, the whole thing collapsed. Where Michael had fallen, his brother and mother could soon follow.
She was grateful that Laura had taken to her. Chris, on the other hand, had seen the urgency of his brother’s situation and had devoted all of his efforts and time towards him. This left Lucy stranded yet concerned. Her thoughts about the eldest brother were complicated. He had been there in her dreams and she had witnessed the power he could harness. He had destroyed the Leathers and had chosen to appear from nowhere, just at the thirteenth hour, to save them. Yet it was not Michael who had been their saviour, but that dark and troubled archangel. Well, that was everybody’s belief.
Laura had snuck out of the room some time ago, her steps speaking of her desire to mask her exit. Lucy had played along, closing her eyes and taking deep sleeping breaths. When she heard the door close behind her, she slowly sat upright before making her way to the wall between hers and Chris’s room. She placed a glass to the wall and listened to the barely audible conversations beyond. She listened as the voices of mother and son fell little above silence and then she heard the whispered opening of their bedroom door.
Lucy adjusted her position and moved towards her own door. Once more, she placed the glass quietly against the old wooden panel and rested her ear on the cold base. Now she could hear more clearly. Chris’s voice was raised in panic. She dragged at the handle and was outside her room as Chris struggled with the stiff figure that was his mother.
“Chris, what’s happening?” she almost screamed.
“It’s Mum. She found this thing,” he said pointing at an item that was about thirty centimetres in length and was glowing, “and now she’s just gone blank. I can’t wake her.”
For a moment, Lucy looked upon the older woman and saw an unwanted resemblance to the expression she had seen on Michael’s face. It was an unlikely marriage of happiness and grief. Her knuckles were whitening around the object she was holding and the strain was in her face.
“Get that thing out of her hand,” she rushed out.
The spell around Chris was fractured. His eyes turned towards the flute his mother had lifted from the bedroom floor and he made to grab it from her.
Lucy saw that something was wrong. The woman whom she had come to know as Laura, a person whose kindness and consideration stretched out as caring arms, was now changed.
Laura snarled. She actually snarled and a bared her teeth at her middle son. There were no words, nothing that was language. The noises coming from Christopher’s mother were primitive and defensively aggressive. Before she knew what next to expect, Laura was falling upon her middle son. Lucy could stand no more. She attacked the mother.
The object in the mother’s hand was a needle, a hypodermic needle, and it was moving towards her son’s eye. Chris was struggling to keep it at bay, but he was losing. Laura had to do something significantly more than just pulling.
She scanned the corridor for a weapon. She wanted something heavy and blunt, something that would impair yet not kill. A red fire extinguisher lay on its side and she grabbed it.
The distance between the tip of the needle and the boy’s eye was reducing to nothing. The madness of the world was falling around her. Without thinking, she raised her weapon and prepared her assault.
My childhood was dominated by memories of The King. Elvis Presley, Aaron to be more precise. My mother was in love. She was smitten with this hip-shaking, breath-taking, king of Rock and Roll. We were the family from The Commitments who could not conceive that there was anything better than the lip-curling kid from Tupelo, Mississippi, the voice of a generation before us and one that could not be beaten. Our commitment to The King was complete and it was cemented with our mother’s undying love.
At that point, we never realised that she had another love, one that could never be requited; Rock Hudson.
I had a particularly bad singing voice. People would stop me in the street just to complain to me about it. You see I loved singing, but singing didn’t love me. Unless I did Elvis Presley songs. Elvis and I, I like to think, were joined at the spiritual hip. We were both working class lads whose middle name began with A (mine was for Andrew not Aaron). For some reason, and this may have been only me who heard this, we both sounded like each other. I would practice at night upon going to bed. It would start with something rocky like King Creole and then move into a couple of love songs, Love me Tender and Only Fools Rush In. that helped to set the scene. With each hip-rolling lyric I was being transformed into The King. I even learned to roll my lip the way he did.
In the sixties, Elvis started to become a little uncool. He started making excrutiatinlgy unbearable films (movies to my American cousins) such as Kissin’ Cousins and Clambake. Regardless of being an Elvis Presley devotee, I kept it quiet if I ever watched these on Saturday afternoons. I did like Flaming Star, a decent western in which he showed a little acting ability and obviously Jailhouse Rock, King Creole and…the list is not endless. Still, I believed that I was becoming Elvis.
My mother loved Elvis whilst my father mocked him a little. Dad was a Frank Sinatra fan and, possibly like me, saw much of himself in his idol. He would never admit that he followed Frank, it was not manly and was certainly not the done thing in working-class West Yorkshire. I tried to keep my Elvis to myself. My mother swooned when one of his songs would be aired on the radio. She positively melted when he was on TV.
“He can only sing certain songs,” my dad would goad.
“Shut up, you. you’re only jealous!” She would snap back.
On those bitterly cold winters nights, I would retreat to the relative comfort of my bedroom, pull an extra coat on the bed, leave my socks on, roll my head to accompany the rock that was to come, and then sing my heart out.
“Shut up!” The chorus would come, “Shut up and go to sleep before your father gets back from the club.”
My singing would then take a downturn into the hardly-audible. I was praying the words, offering up myself to a greater power, the living god of Rock n Roll.
Getting older meant that certain songs could not be sung. The seventies brought Glam Rock, Prog Rock and then Punk Rock. The King must have seen it coming and decided to make himself less and less visible. Ironically, during this time, he was becoming more and more visible through his love of all food bad. His weight shot up as his fame dropped down. I still managed a neat impersonation of him singing, In The Ghetto. That was a rather socially aware number that I believed was socially acceptable, As The Snow Flies. I have never seen snow flies, but I think that they must be rather hardy little pests.
On August 16, 1977, The King died.
I was in bed, drifting off to sleep. Too old to sing his songs without my parents considering the option of sectioning me in our local lunatic asylum. I could hear the TV from downstairs. Mum was watching it whilst my dad shared a few pints with his mates at the club.
I heard a long drawn-out, “Oh, no.” Quickly followed by, “No. Please, no.”
I knew he was dead. I went downstairs and found my mum in tears.
“He’s dead, Mike. Elvis is dead. It’s not fair.”
My sisters were both downstairs at this point and they joined he in the ritual shedding of tears. Even my father was sad when he returned. The King was dead.
That night, I tried to summon up his spirit and channel it within me. I could think of no better use for my defunct voice box than to become the conduit for King Creole’s magnificence. It didn’t happen.
My mum got over her infatuation and moved on. She was never the same with her affections and never openly declared her love for icons until later when her somewhat secret love was no secret any more. Rock Hudson, dashingly handsome and quirkily funny in his outings in Pillow Talk with Doris Day, died on October 2nd 1985. He died of Aids related illnesses after hiding his sexuality for al of his movie-star career. My mother sobbed. My father shrugged his shoulders.
“If only he had met me. I could have cured him,” she declared.
In those days, they had no cure for homosexuality.
For a moment he stood, transfixed by what had taken place. The world had changed and it was waiting for him.
One small step and he was through the door. He wore only flimsy slippers, worn away to the bone. He wanted to turn back. He didn’t.
Under the slight shelter of his porch, he paused momentarily and surveyed the blank covering. It was simpler with snow. It was also easier to pick out tracks that could have been responsible for all of this nonsense.
In his eventual urgency, he had forgotten to take a torch, but a full moon rode the night sky and leant illumination. Snow covered contours, levelled slopes and shadow-covered hazards. It also betrayed tracks, or footsteps, of those that had been there. Yet, although he tried, he could not discern anything of importance.
He had always prided himself on his ability to track and to hunt. Little escaped him when he set himself to the task of proving his worth. In the old days, he had hunted the upper slopes and even the peaks. Both he and his brother ventured far into the higher reaches in order to win the respect of their father. They were as tight a team as any other on the mountains. No, they were tighter. But this didn’t stop their battle.
A year separated them, making him the second in line. Everything would go to the eldest. He had never considered this when they were younger boys, journeying into the winter lands and calling each other’s dare. Their challenges were frequent and forever evolving in difficulty. They liked to push themselves and each other to see what was possible. They had no mother to worry for them and their father expressed little concern. The boys could be gone for a number of days at a time, but there would be nothing of concern coming from the old man; nothing to suggest that he considered that there was any real danger. After all, hadn’t the last of the wolves been killed in his father’s time?
“Stop thinking about it!”
He had spoken these words out loud. He now spoke much of his words out loud. There was nobody to hear him, nobody to suggest that he was a crank. He could do as he liked.
“Hellooo,” he hollered into the vast emptiness and waited for his words to bounce back.
The exertion of the utterance had an unwanted effect. He was sharply aware that he needed to piss again. The house was behind him, further away than he had imagined. He didn’t realise that he had travelled so far away from it. Half a mile, he surmised. Half a mile? However did that happen?
He had choices: he could turn back to the farmhouse now or he could just relieve himself out here. He could stain the brilliant white with his yellow issue. The idea appealed to him. He liked the freedom of pissing out of doors. He liked the potential offence that it could cause others. He enjoyed spoiling the perfection of it all. Just as long as it didn’t freeze his cock off.
He laughed to himself and started to extract his tool.
The piss was greater than ever. It flowed in an impressively torrential jet of liquid and steam. When it hit the snow, it cut through it like the proverbial hot knife; or, hot piss through snow. They had had pissing contests.
His brother prided himself on the unusual length of his member. But beyond showing it off at any chosen point in time, there was little else his extra inches were good for. It was his, the younger brother’s item that could shoot faster and further, much to the annoyance of the eldest sibling. These days, his power was less, much less. The years meant that he needed to visit more, but those visits were very far from torrential; drips were all that occurred, drips and a bad aim.
“Tonight, I piss for the gods!”
And he did. He pissed so long and hard that the covering of already hardening snow completely relented and gave up its sovereignty. He watched it with wonder.
“Praise be,” he announced as his waters continued to part the ground. “God is great!”
He decided to leave his own name for everyone to see. Not until he had finished did he realise that he had spelt out, G O D . He laughed at his mistake. He felt that he could laugh until he died and that felt good, very good indeed.
It was the first howl that stopped him in his tracks.
He hastily replaced himself and searched the scene for the source. Some way off a stealthy shadow watched him, but did not move. It was the man’s turn to move. He was too old to play such stupid games and so, he set himself for the journey back to the house.
He had travelled only a few steps when his feet were lost from under him. He fell helplessly and face-first into the snow. He was dazed. He reached around himself to get support and something touched his outstretched hand. It was there in the snow all along and he had walked past it. But now as he pulled the thing towards him, he recognised a hand, a very old hand.
This time, the solitary howl was joined by several more.
It was an unseasonably warm October night. The high winds of the midweek had ceased and it was still. My own turmoil was resting, licking its wounds, trying to heal itself. This was the second time we had ventured out on a Saturday evening to see my favourite poet. The first time had been a wrong call; I got the month wrong. Perhaps my father was right when he insisted that I was dateless. My wife shares this acute judgement of the strange being that is her husband. A month late, but on time, I prayed that the firmaments were now in line.
The last time that I attended a reading of his poetry was almost thirty years ago. I had gone along with a good friend and sat suitably in awe of the greatest light in modern poetry. I considered him to be one of us (UZ) rather than one of them. I came from working-class roots and confronted the received-wisdom that denied the masses so that the few could prosper. It was through his poetry that I found mine. I also found a torch that lit up the tunnels in which I could work away at the foundations of that which chose to imprison me.
It was Harrison’s School of Eloquence that originally pulled me in:
How you became a poet’s a mystery!
Wherever did you get your talent from?
I say: I had two uncles,Joe and Harry –
one was a stammerer, the other dumb.
If my father had ever written verse, I would have liked it to have been like this. My dad was a realist, not a dreamer like his son. He could not waste words on silly rhymes; life was too short and there was work to be done. So, I took Tony Harrison at his word(s) and made him my surrogate muse. Each time I came across well-trodden feet, I stopped in wonder at the things I had previously not seen. It was like waking-up for the first time, every time, and seeing the world afresh.
I was saddened and surprised by how few people had turned-out to listen to the Rhubarb Bard. There was a time when he was admired as ‘one of the most prodigiously gifted and accessible poets’ alive. He could ”speak the language” that he spoke at home, but use the form of sonnets to drive his point home at the same time. When I first read him, it was at the behest of Mary Eagleton, the sister of Terry Eagleton, another well-read socialist interpreter of higher learning. I was like Tony’s uncle; “mouth all stuffed with glottals”. My public reading had never been good, even if I did have the accent to suit the verse. After tripping through his lines, I went home to sit in my undergraduate bedsit and study his words. They were mine.
That was years and years ago in the long, long ago that will not disappear.
Tony Harrison came to the front of the small gathering, apologised for not having his microphone attached, had it attached, then shuffled the white pages of his world of words. We were in Beverley Minster, a grand building that has been used by TV companies to ape its better known cousin, the palace of Saint James. And Tony, though not in the pulpit, was at the front. When he started to read, I fell into the time between the pages and saw not an old man, now gone eighty, but the Tony Harrison of some forty years before. I caught myself mouthing the words that he was speaking and realised that I was performing an act of devotion. I nodded when lines long deep in my own memory were recited. Other people disappeared into the shadows of the ancient hall and there was Harrison speaking directly from within me.
My fellow audience members were probably retired teachers; their sensible clothes suggested as much. I recognised faces from the past and shared a greeting or two. Nobody applauded when he reached then end of individual poems. My hands were itching to give him a warm ovation, but to my shame I followed the crowd. It was like being at an opera or classical concert. Everything Harrison stood for was being filtered into their sense of the world. I actually wanted to cheer and to shout encouragement or agreement, but I merely nodded and mouthed the words I knew.
At the end of the reading, there was a little Q&A. An interviewer asked generic questions about poems that had been written decades before. It was obvious and a little puerile. I filled a void of silence when I held the microphone to tell him that I was pleased that it was being held in that setting as I had worshipped him as a poet. The wife said that that was a little corny and she was right. But at least it was honest.
A question that wasn’t asked, but was partly addressed by the poet, was about the impact he had had through his writing. At its point, his eyes fell towards the floor and he thought for a moment.
“The world has gone back to what it was like back then. I thought it would have changed. I hoped that it would have got better, but it’s back to where it was. Isn’t that what history teaches us? And we never learn.”
not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.”