Tom Raworth, 1938-2017

Tom Raworth Sept 2015

The first book of Tom Raworth’s poetry I bought was The Relation Ship; a second, 1969, edition of the book originally published by Goliard Press two years previously.  Goliard, later Cape Goliard, being an important small press – vital, at the time – set up by Raworth himself and Barry Hall.  I would have bought it almost certainly at Compendium in Camden Town, discovering Raworth round about the same time as I did Lee Harwood, Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley and Edward Dorn.

It’s battered now with use and faded, but the poems still have freshness and delicacy and precision – you can sense Raworth stepping with care between the words …

THE OTHERS
(for anselm & josephine)

she said nothing
leaned on the stone bridge             the wind
howled in my ear, pause
between the dropping
of the record & the music

dust                      the wind                 the streets
already in shadow

we walked                  someone
playing the piano in a tiled room

oh
said her mother a
mister dante called you
beatrice

And I’m surprised, reading these early poems again now, the extent to which, in some, Raworth sounds like Harwood and vice versa. This is Tom, but it could be Lee – the title, especially.

YOU WERE WEARING BLUE

the explosives are nearer this evening
the last train leaves for the south
at six            tomorrow
the announcements will be in a different language

i chew the end of a match
the tips of my finger and thumb are sticky

i will wait at the station and you
will send a note, i
will read it
it will be raining

our shadows in the electric light

when i was eight they taught me real
writing
to join up the letters

listen you said i
preferred to look
at the sea.   everything stops there are strange angles

only the boats spoil it
making you focus further

Towards the ends of their lives they were both living in Brighton and Hove – the same ships, the same sea. The last time I saw Tom was in September, 2015, when, with others, we were reading at the Red Roaster Café in Brighton, as part of an evening celebrating Lee’s life and work – he had died that July – and that’s where the photograph of Tom at this top of his piece was taken. He may have needed a little help up onto the stage, but, as I’ve said elsewhere, when he read he read like a lion.

The final entry in his blog, dated 23rd January, read …

Last Friday after two days of tests, scans, bone-marrow extraction and so on, our Doctor came in the evening to say the cancer had badly metastsized…to bone marrow, liver, right lung, kidney and small bowel. Nothing to be done except palliative care and that I had at most two weeks to live. So that’s it. I can’t see I shall ever get back here. Emails will reach Val val.raworth@gmail.com who obviously will pass along to me whatever she can. Bits of it all have been fun and it’s been a decent run.

He died on February, 8th, the world a lesser place.

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Sherma Batson 1957 – 2017

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My friend Sherma Batson died suddenly on Sunday, 8th January, at the age of 59.

Active for all of her adult life in the community life and local politics of Stevenage, the town where she lived from an early age, Sherma served as Borough Councillor for 12 years  and was awarded an MBE for her services to the community in 2008, being appointed a Deputy Lieutenant for Hertfordshire the following year. In 2014/15, she became the town’s first black, female mayor.

I first got to know Sherma when she was a student in one of my English classes in Stevenage in the 1970s, self-confident and aware and, when she deemed it necessary, outspoken. A younger version of the powerhouse she was to become. I remember her dragging me on to the dance floor at a school disco, waving away any faint protests with the assertion that Stevie Wonder was too good to be allowed to go to waste.

We became friends and met regularly if infrequently over the years – when I asked her advice about my characterisation of a black policewoman in a novel I was writing, she informed me in no uncertain terms of my failings – and I could only stand back and admire from a distance the drive and single-mindedness she brought to those issues of equality, health and diversity that were, to her, so important.

It was a real pleasure and an honour to have known her and to have been counted among her friends. It is no platitude to say that she will deeply missed – by her husband, Howard, and her daughter, Ahisha – and by the many people who worked alongside her and came to know her.

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Secondary School Reunion

There’s a feature in today’s Guardian about inspiring teachers, a not uncommon subject and, as a former school teacher, of course welcome. But what about inspiring pupils? To take just one of the schools at which I taught – Harrow Way Secondary Modern School in Andover, Hampshire, where I was Head of English in the latter years of the 196os – I could single out one former pupil who is now a college principal, one who went on to become Head of History in a comprehensive school and another, who, after many years of dedication, hard work and study, is now a surgeon. And, yes, this was a secondary modern school; these were all people who were rejected by the education system at 11 plus as not fit for academic study. And these are but three inspiring examples.

Last week I had the very great pleasure of meeting up with another former student from Harrow Way, Mary McCormack. Mary, who now lives in Ireland, was over to visit her daughter, Lucy, who lives in Dalston, East London. It was the first time we’d met in 46 years. Mary had been one of the bright lights of my English class – I still recognised her writing, when she showed me, on her iPad, a poem she’d recently written – and she had been one of a small number who had helped run the school’s weekly radio broadcasts. It was lovely to meet her – Lucy, too – and to catch up over a long lunch. [The lamb was especially delicious.]

Just a couple of hours later and we were saying goodbye again. Lucy had arranged to take Mary to have her first tattoo as a 61st birthday present. And it was Lucy  who took this photograph of Mary and I outside the grocer’s conveniently adjacent to the restaurant: as happy to have met one another again as we look.

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Helen Harvey 1901 – 1986

My mum died thirty years ago today, the latter part of her life beset by illnesses too stubborn for even someone as stubborn and resilient as she to resist. For now, I’d prefer to remember her as I never knew her, the promise of life ahead.

The first of these is clearly a studio portrait, taken, I would guess, when my mum was around 20; the others were taken, I believe, on holiday in Ostend a year or so before the outbreak of World War Two, a year or so before I was born.

Mum Studio

Mum

Parents Cafe

That was before we were married, before the war, the year before you were born; I wore my new polka dot dress and your father his white shoes. Nothing could touch us, except each other. We just sat there, staring out, waiting for it all to begin.

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They  put this photo on display, close to the seafront: the perfect couple. And for as long as the magic lasted, it was true. “Smile!” the photographer said and knowing no reason not to, we did. Inside twelve months those beaches would be mined and our sad, slow journey would have begun.

Thomas Harvey 1906 – 1984

I was flicking though some photographs the other day when one taken at a Crime Writers’ Association dinner stopped me in my tracks – Surely my dad wasn’t there, was he? Well, no, he’d died a good few years before and, of course, it was me, looking at little different for the occasion, a little more formal, suit jacket, collar and tie, a little more like him. The likeness I see now every morning in the mirror.

He died thirty two years ago today, my dad, at 78 years of age: the same age I myself will be before the year’s end.

Makes you think …

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On holiday in Bucks around 1948 or so, I’m 10 or thereabouts, my dad’s a little over 40.

Dad & I, Lenton – Version 2

This is in Nottingham, Lenton to be precise; I’m 40-ish, the same age as my dad in the first photo, and he’s 73 0r 74 and has shrunk a couple of inches.

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And just to bring things up to date, this is me with my son, also Tom, in Nottingham earlier this year – Tom just a year or so older than I was in the middle photo and my dad in the first.

Nancy Nielsen 1930 – 2016

Nancy Nielsen, who has died at the age of 85 after a long illness, was one of the most formidable women it has ever been my pleasure – honour – to have met. Accomplished, clear-headed, rarely one to waste time or words unnecessarily, if you had the good fortune to be accepted as a friend, you felt it was something you had earned. Something to be cherished.

Nancy was a dedicated and hard-working conservationist – with a particular interest in the coastal area of Downeast Maine where she lived – a botanist, educator and – far from least  – a poet. I got to know Nancy through her partner and fellow poet, Alan Brooks, initially when Alan was living in England, and then, later, on a number of happy and memorable visits to Stone Man Farm, their secluded home on Straight Bay outside Lubec.

It was with Alan’s help, advice and encouragement that, in 1977, I began editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine, which was to feature both his own and Nancy’s work, and in 1984, in conjunction with Stone Man Press, we published a book of Nancy’s poems, East of the Light.

This poem comes from that collection …

Sometimes In The Summer

Sometimes in the summer
dusk, dark
all the hidden, sought, found
children quiet
screen doors
slapped
closed
cicadas
my grandmother said come
and we carried the linen
cutwork
roses, fine rolled hems
stitched, laid by in chests
used, darned
into the garden,
where for years linens were spread
to whiten
in dew
in moonlight
we laid them on the grass
the paths
between pale shapes
of nightblooming flowers
sometimes
my grandmother smiled
on her knees
her rough hands smoothing
linens
breathing the flowers

And this, from the poetry blog, Salt and Stone Poetry, on which she and Alan published and shared their work, is I believe, the last poem that Nancy wrote …

Oh, Who’d Leave This World

When the wind
that wind
wind from the sea
salt and wrack
lifting the meadow grass
ghosting with fog

or where
racket of crows
caw and caw
dipping
into the wind

Who’d set aside the book
this book any book
so filled with life
book on the table

Side by side
we talk of the stories
wind from the south

The wind outside
salt marsh wind
wind from the sea

who?

Alan will continue to post Nancy’s unpublished poems, along with his own work, on the Salt and Stone Poetry blog …

A full obituary can be found here, from the Bangor Daily News

 

Bits of a Writer’s Life …

On Friday evening, April 22nd, I was at the Poetry Society’s Poetry Café in Covent Garden as one of the guest readers in this month’s Fourth Friday, a long running evening of poetry and music organised by Dix Schofield and the indefatigable Hylda Sims. I’ve read there before and it’s always been enjoyable, but for some reason – the range and quality of the readers from the floor, perhaps? – this seemed an especially rewarding evening. The other guest reader, Danielle Hope, whom I knew from the days when I published her work in Slow Dancer magazine, was sharp and funny, and Liz Simcock – now back solo after several years of working with a small band – was in fine form.

4th Friday

My daughter, Molly Ernestine, had come along and we took the opportunity to air what has become our poetry party piece, a shared reading of the poem, “Hollywood Canteen”, which I wrote some good few years back when my older daughter, Leanne, was living and working as a dancer in Paris – the central section of the poem, the section Molly read, and which Leanne herself used to read – being more or less a transcription of Leanne’s words on the occasion in question, when we’d just come away from watching Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams.

Here’s the poem …

HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN

It seems too much of a cliché
almost, to tell it, but there,
up on the counter
of the Hollywood Canteen,
there among the images
of Marilyn, James Dean,
she pushes back her plate,
lights her cigarette
and right over the juke box
she says, nineteen:

I hate films that end like that,
stuck out on the porch
in the middle of nowhere
watching the sun go down –
as though it could ever happen,
Jesus! It’s like your parents
bringing you up to believe
it’s possible to tell the truth
out there, when one minute
after they let you out into the world,
you can see everyone else is lying.
I mean, you just try being nice out there,
just try it! You won’t last five minutes
and I’ll tell you this, I haven’t met
a single person since I was sixteen
who wasn’t a bitch underneath
and I haven’t got the strength
to stand up to them, not on my own,
and that’s what I am.
And happiness, that’s a laugh
and one thing I am sure of,
it isn’t sitting out on a dumb porch
in the middle of Iowa, staring
into some technicolour sunset.

She turned her head aside
and closed her eyes
and when she did that
she was as beautiful
as I had ever seen her.

What do you think, she said,
the pancakes with the maple syrup?
You think we should have the ice cream
as well? Maybe the chocolate sauce?

Seeing my face, she smiled.

The following day Molly and I took the train up to Stevenage for an afternoon event at the library, as part of Hertfordshire Libraries Litfest 16. Aside from a  few occasions when Notts County were the visitors to the Stevenage F.C. ground on Woodhall Way, this was, I think, the first time I’d been back in the town since I spent several years teaching in the English department of Stevenage Girls’ School in early 1970s.

The plan was to give an overview of how I managed to kick start a writing career and then keep it on track from its starting point in 1975, when my first book – Avenging Angel, written at the kitchen table at my flat on Webb Rise during my last year of teaching – was published; then, after some Q&A, to concentrate on the Resnick books, in particular Darkness, Darkness, and the challenges  in adapting that novel for the stage, which is one of projects I’m currently working on.

While Molly ran through the slides before we started, there was just time for me to completely, and embarrassingly, fail to recognise one of my former fell0w teachers, as well as a former next-door neighbour and three former pupils, two from my A level English class, one of whom had passed, and one failed – even at this remove I felt responsible, though it hadn’t stopped her from becoming a teacher herself in due course.

A slight hiccup in the technical department at the beginning – the computer froze and slides we’d checked previously refused to appear – gave me the opportunity to begin the session with an unplanned reading of my Chet Baker poem, which I was pleased to do as it allowed me to dedicate it to one of the long-time stalwarts of the British jazz scene, sadly no longer playing, bassist Pete Blannin, who was with his wife in the audience. I remember seeing Pete with the great Humphrey Lyttelton Band in the early 1960s, as well as with groups led by the likes of Tubby Hayes and Tony Kinsey. It’s a bonus for me that he likes crime fiction.

IT problem solved, things moved along smoothly; there was a good, attentive crowd – I’d guess around 50 – and no shortage of interesting, even challenging questions. My good friend, Sherma Batson – another former pupil, now county councillor and recently Mayor of Stevenage – taking me to task for killing off one of my running characters, Lynn Kellogg, thus giving away the plot of Cold in Hand in a single swoop. But never mind. Friends still.

Just before the end, Molly left her spot at the desk, where she’d been working the laptop, top join me in a reading of one of the scenes from the Darkness, Darkness play script – its first public airing. As I pointed out, despite working in various other forms, I had never, up to the present, written anything for the theatre, my only experience in that area having been putting on plays when I was still teaching, something that gave me a great deal of pleasure at the time, not least for the large numbers of students it was possible involve, and still gave pleasure in retrospect. At Stevenage, I remember with particular fondness a version of Alice in Wonderland, with a soundtrack ranging from Bach and Vivaldi to Miles Davis and Jefferson Airplane, and Split, a play about a teenage girl with schizophrenia that was built up almost entirely from improvisation. Those were the days!

That I could even begin to venture into such areas was almost entirely due to my great friend, the late Tom Wild, a wonderful and talented man who died far too young; seeing the work that Tom did with secondary modern children in Yorkshire, often using improvisation as a way into Brecht and Shakespeare was an inspiration for me and, I’m sure, for the pupils involved – I doubt if they will ever f0rget it.

Here, finally, is a little Stevenage Girls’ School memorabilia [no flash programmes in those days!]

Alice 1

4th Friday 1

Split 1

Split 2

 

All the News that’s Fit …

Following up on my previous post outlining the next few events I’m set to take part in, here’s a really nice piece from The Comet which touches on the Resnick series as a whole and Darkness, Darkness in particular, and which, being a local paper, concentrates upon the years I spent teaching English & Drama in Stevenage.

What you see below is quite small print, so please click on the link above for easier reading. And if you’re considering joining me for tea & cake this coming Saturday afternoon, the details are below The Comet feature.

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Jim Harrison 1937 – 2016

Back in 1992, I was pleased to be invited by Geoff Sadler to contribute a couple of entries to the encyclopaedia of Twentieth-Century Western Writers he was compiling and editing for  St. James Press. One of these was Thomas McGuane, the other, his friend Jim Harrison.

Here are the first five paragraphs of my piece, along with the last (the middle section mostly deals with another of Harrison’s fine novels, Dalva).

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I first became aware of Jim Harrison’s writing during a visit to California in 1981. A friend, thinking, no doubt, that my own efforts would benefit from some stiffening of style and elevation of purpose, presented me with the Delta paperback edition of Harrison’s Legends of the Fall and having, as it were, lit the touch paper, tactfully withdrew. I read the three novellas in the books with greed and widening amazement, part on a Greyhound bound from Sacramento to San Francisco, more in a cabin in PointLobos, within earshot of Big Sur. When I’d finished them through once and my companion had done the same, I read them again. When the British hardcover edition was, sadly, remaindered in conscpicuous quantities, I bought enough to give to most of my friends and not a few of my enemies.

Rereading Legends of the Fall before writing this piece, my reactions to the first story, “Revenge”, and the last, the title story, were scarcely less effusive. What is audacious is Harrison’s ambition – there is no getting around either the narrative scope here, nor its extreme seriousness and emotional intensity – and the control of material and style, which never seems to desert him. Apparently, Harrison was told by a regretful publisher that if only he’d written Legends of the Fall to around 600 pages instead of a mere 80, the New York Times Best Sellers List would have been theirs for the taking. He was right, of course – it’s all there: generation, war, unforgetting love and unforgiveable lust, insanity, individuality, honour and betrayal. But at that length it would have been another fat epic, better than most. As it stands it’s as close to perfect as you can get without falling off the edge.

This is how it begins:

Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags. One Stab knew all the shortcuts in the northern Rockies so their ride traversed wild country, much of it far from roads and settlements. They left before dawn with their father holding an oil lamp in the stable dressed in his buffalo robe, all of them silent, and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.

Much of the style and substance of Harrison’s writing is contained in that opening paragraph. The language is direct, the world is primarily a masculine one with its own rituals and codes, and that ritual quality is achieved through the language and structure. The influence, I would guess, is Hemingway, but there’s a weightier, almost a biblical cadence here that is Harrison’s own. The land – specifically the land of the mid- and north-west – and the journeys from that land to take part in foreign wars, are integral to much of his work, as is the relationship between the descendants of white European settlers and the surviving Native Americans. The graceful muscularity of the prose and the normally unsentimental presentations of the natural world enable Harrison (in my contention) to get away with the final description of the father’s farewell breath here, allowing it to take on a metaphoric, almost mythic quality, rather than subsiding towards bathos and sentimentality.

There are links between Harrison and an informal Montana-Key West group that includes fellow-writer Thomas McGuane, the painter Russell Chatham, singer Jimmy Buffet and actors such as Peter Fonda and Harry Dean Stanton. All of the U.S. editions of his books have reproductions on their jackets of Chatham’s work – two of them with the permission of their current owner, Stanton. It was McGuane who gave Harrison an important, early push and the two have collaborated together on at least one original screenplay, Cold Feet. Harrison, it seems, writes screenplays to keep his head above financial water while concentrating most of his creative energies on poetry and fiction …

… Harrison’s work is a world away from the self-regarding ironists so fashionable in New York literary circles. In that sense, he is a regional, a Western writer. As he said in an interview in Publishers Weekly: “I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony … I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smarts.”

He certainly avoided that.

You might also want to take a look at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets blog , where he writes about Jim Harrison and gives a link to the Harrison obituary he wrote for the Guardianhttp://irresistibletargets.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/jim-harrison-guardian-obituary.html

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Barry Hines: 1939 – 2016

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Barry Hines

In sad retrospect, I’m pleased that, talking about the Resnick novels at Bromley House Library in Nottingham this Saturday just past, and asked about influences on my work, I mentioned, alongside a small number of other social realist writers, the novelist and dramatist, Barry Hines, who, unbeknown to me, had died the previous day.

A teacher of English and Drama, I’d just moved  on after three years at Heanor-Aldercar Secondary School, in a small, principally mining town in South-East Derbyshire, to take on a similar post in less industrial Hampshire, when Hines’ first novel, A Kestrel for A Knave, was published in 1968. Set in South Yorkshire, the novel, and Ken Loach’s well-known and cherished film adaptation, Kes, released a year later, struck me forcefully their ability to render a world entire unto itself without ever being patronising or over-sentimental, but with hard-truth, understanding and compassion.

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As it happens, we’d watched a DVD of Kes at home only a few weeks before – a first time for our daughter – and despite familiarity on my part, it had still engendered tears (and laughter) and, most of all, anger. Exactly, I think, as Hines – and Loach – would have wanted.

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What I didn’t spell out at Bromley House, but should have, was the importance of Ken Loach’s two-part television drama from 1977, The Price of Coal, written by Barry Hines, to my preliminary research for Darkness, Darkness, the Resnick novel  partly set during the Miners’ Strike, which I’m in the process of dramatising for Nottingham Playhouse and New Perspectives Theatre.

Both Kes and The Price of Coal were produced by Tony Garnett, and there was a time, some few years ago now, when the Resnick novels were optioned for television by Garnett’s production company. We’ll do what we can to get your books to the screen as well as they deserve, Garnett said when we met. It never happened. (It rarely does.) But what if it had … ?