Unsurprisingly, these long lockout days have led to some considerable discussion of the importance of children’s play and the accessibility of outdoor spaces; time that could be spent, largely free from intrusive adult supervision, with others of a similar age.
It was my good fortune in the early 60s, when I was in my final year at Goldsmiths, to join several of my fellow students as a play leader in one of the adventure playgrounds that had been set up by Camden under the influence and leadership of Joe Benjamin, one of the founders of the adventure playground movement in this country.
Just recently, I came across a cache of photographs from that time …
In a recent post dealing with school drama productions I’d been involved in while teaching in Stevenage, I made passing reference to an earlier piece about the life of Vincent Van Gogh from my time at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover. Like the Stevenage work, this was a co-operative effort involving as many students and staff as possible, although, as the production evolved, one student in particular, Stephen Lewis, had a fuller involvement as actor, writer and composer. As was the case with Van Gogh himself, no matter the circumstances, you can’t keep good man down!
Knowing a little of Steve’s later involvement with drama, I thought it would be interesting to ask him for his memories of the production and its significance. This is what he wrote …
Drama was my favourite subject at Harrow Way School and thanks to our enthusiastic and inventive teacher, John Harvey, it became a core part of my life. For the first twenty-five years of my career, I was involved in drama teaching, culminating in running the MA in Drama in Education course at what is now Birmingham City University. The strongest memory I have of the work John did at Harrow Way was the collaborative nature of it and the way that it engaged pupils and staff from right across the school.
As a 14 year old I was cast as Vincent in a show called At Last the Vincent van Gogh Show. The “At Last” was added because opening night was delayed owing to an industrial dispute and teachers having to work to rule; this meant that out of school hours rehearsals were postponed for a term. Because John wanted to involve as many pupils as possible, the only way of getting the whole cast together was after school and at the weekends. This was probably why I had a go at writing some of the script and enjoyed researching the life of Van Gogh in such detail.
The set for the show consisted of two 16 x 8 feet screens made by the woodwork department that were fixed at the front stage-right half of the traditional school platform stage and used to back-project images of Van Gogh’s paintings put together by the art department. The performance took place in front of the screens on the hall floor and a raised, tiered area built out from the stage-left half of the stage. This early practice of getting as much of a performance off the stage and thrust out into the audience space must have had a real impact on me, since very few of the hundred or so productions I directed subsequently were set on a proscenium arch with curtains.
I am sure that my attempt at scripting the show was very conventional and limited by an experience of plays that did not extend beyond what we had studied at school or I had seen on television. John had an overall concept for the show that included dance-drama numbers so that more people could be involved beyond the smaller group of characters surrounding Van Gogh’s life. Looking back, I can see now that this was a creative device to make scenes where Van Gogh was painting at his easel more theatrical and of interest to the audience.
While Van Gogh was painting sunflowers, for example, George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun was playing and a group of dancers performed around the artist at work in one of his more happier moments. In contrast to this I remember the scene in the cornfield where I was surrounded by staccato-moving dancers dressed all in black enacting the movement of crows to the music of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. It was an expressive way of representing Van Gogh’s deep-seated depression and made the moment where he shoots himself in the groin seem more plausible. There was also a dance to a piece called Urizen from a jazz album by David Axelrod which is a fusion of orchestral sound and rock band. It has these rising glissandi on strings and listening to it again after all these years I can visualise the dancers rising up dressed in yellow and swirling ribbons of fabric around me.
John has written about the infamous ear-cutting scene which was portrayed by my holding up a 2 x 1 foot piece of ear-shaped polystyrene to the side of my head. I had to cut across the top of the polystyrene with a handsaw and I can still recall the squeaking sound it made as I sawed a lump of it away. The fragment of polystyrene ear fell to the floor and then a character dressed as a policeman walked up to me, picked it up and said to the audience, “’ello, ‘ello, ‘ello: what’s this ‘ear then?”. It got a laugh every night.
The fact that I can still recall this so vividly fifty years later shows what a lasting impression this production made on me. That the structure of the show was an example of Total Theatre or that using an oversized prop and a music hall gag at a serious moment was a Brechtian technique were unknowns to me at the time. But thank you Mr Harvey for creating the circumstances and providing the experience that helped me find my element in life.
Funny the ways in which school students remember their teachers, aeons on; funny if they remember them at all. I was buying a pair of jeans in one of those boutiquey men’s clothing stores in the centre of Nottingham, when one of the salesmen said he knew me from school – Heanor-Aldercar Secondary School in Langley Mill. “One thing I’ve always remembered – you coming into our English lesson with the record player and an LP, saying, ‘Right now. You’ve all got to listen to this.’ And you played Sergeant Pepper all the way through.” Worst things to be remembered for.
Four or five years ago, quite by chance, I bumped into someone I’d taught at Stevenage Girls’ School when she would have been twelve or thirteen: getting on for 45 years before. I didn’t recognise her, but she knew me right off. “Triple-decker egg-and-bacon sandwich!” she said and laughed. I’d used it in some way I can’t exactly recall as a metaphoric way of explaining a complex sentence; I think the middle slice, between the bacon and the egg, might have been a semi-colon.
Following my recent post about teaching at the Girls’ School in Stevenage, Pam Smith, one of the sixth form students taking the Modern paper in A Level English – Beckett, Virginia Woolf and, I think, Eliot – got in touch via a friend. What it seems she remembers most clearly was the lesson in which, reading from Malone Dies, I laughed so helplessly that I slid under the desk and onto the floor. [Whatever it takes … ]
A quick search along the shelves at home soon came up with my teaching copies of both Malone Dies and To The Lighthouse.
Pam went on to take a degree at the University of Nottingham and it was her enthusiasm for the Department of American Studies that led directly to my applying there to do an MA, making many new friends and renewing my acquaintanceship with what is surely the queen of cities.
Circumstances have got me thinking again about the years I spent teaching in Stevenage – four years in the English Department at Stevenage Girls’ School, 1971 – 75; the same four years that I was studying, part time, for a BA in English at Hatfield Polytechnic, now the University of Hertfordshire. A course of study made easier by the generosity of Hertfordshire County Council, who allowed me one afternoon off a week, with pay, to attend lectures, together with four weeks – four whole weeks – off to revise for my finals. Outstanding.
Stevenage was the first of the New Towns to arrive in the wake of the Second World War, a brutalist cousin of two nearby towns that were products of the earlier Garden City movement – Welwyn to the south and Letchworth to the north. Up until 1969, there were two grammar schools, the long-established Alleyne’s School for boys in Stevenage Old Town, and the rather peripatetic Stevenage Girls’ Grammar School, which dropped the word ‘grammar’ from its title when it arrived at new buildings on Valley Way in 1968, in readiness for joining the comprehensive revolution.
It was my experience teaching young people in secondary modern schools – those who, in pre-comprehensive days, would have taken and failed their 11 Plus – that made me an attractive proposition for the head teacher, Miss Osborne – though to what extent Mrs Crewe, the Head of English, agreed, I was never certain. And it wasn’t just English I was teaching; I was also teaching drama. Lots of small group improvisation, probably rather too much wafting around to the likes of Britten’s Sea Interludes – and, on a couple of occasions, a full-scale production. The school play.
In my earlier post at Harrow Way County Secondary School in Andover I’d warmed up with an abridged version of Shaw’s St. Joan [called, of course, St. Jo – what else?] followed by the (almost) all-dancing, all singing At Last, The Vincent Van Gogh Show! – the highpoint of which was the actor playing Van Gogh coming out wearing a huge polystyrene ear and proceeding, slowly, and squeakily, to saw it off with a fretsaw. Well, it was the 60s! And something I might well return to in more detail in a later blog – but for now, back to Stevenage.
At the Girls’ School, the first production was Alice, based, of course, on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and very much under the influence of the Jefferson Airplanesong, White Rabbit.
One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don’t do anything at all, go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall.
You can imagine the scene: Alice, red hair, blue dress, and the first of several white pills and, pretty soon, the first sighting of the white rabbit itself.
Half-buried amongst a pile of miscellaneous papers, I found a copy of the programme …
It’s noticeable how strictly I was sticking to the protocols laid down by the Drama Department at Goldsmiths, where I’d done my teacher training, and followed through by my great friend and mentor, Tom Wild, whose productions of Brecht and Shakespeare with ‘secondary modern kids’ in Yorkshire were an inspiration. So, rule one, involve as many of the school as you can, and two, list them all equally and alphabetically . Everyone counts.
Having suggested ideas of madness in Alice – see the Cheshire Cat’s riposte to Alice above – the following year’s production, Split, was based on a case-study of a girl suffering from schizophrenia that was written about in R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self. [The 60s continued to loom large.]
The majority of the scenes were built up through improvisation during many rehearsals, improvisation that continued in performance, save for opening and closing lines, which acted as cues for the people doing music and lighting.
It was a recent exchange of emails with Moya Cove, one of the musicians listed above, that got me harking back to Stevenage days – and plays – and I was very interested to read Moya’s thoughts about growing up and going to school in Stevenage – thoughts she is happy for me to share …
The more I look back and think about it the more I realise what a unique ‘brave new world’ social and economic project we were all involved in. Personally, I feel we had the very best of Stevenage new town in those forward looking post-war days before the shine wore off. And it was successful – for an all too brief moment in time – in facilitating real social mobility, along with optimism, hope and a feeling for social justice. As a group of girls I would say we all came out of Stevenage -in those days of rising feminism – and were utterly determined to have careers and be economically independent. Our generation were incredibly fortunate to experience Stevenage at that time.
For proof of what Moya says about social mobility, a feeling for social justice, and the rise of feminism amongst Stevenage’s young women, I would point to the life of Sherma Batson (whose name appears in the Alice programme).
A community activist with a wide variety of interests, Sherma was one of the founders of the Stevenage World Forum for Ethnic Communities, and largely responsible for setting up Celebrate!!!, a multi-cultural showcase held annually at the Gordon Craig Theatre during Black History Month. A stalwart member of the Labour Party, Sherma was elected to Hertfordshire County Council in 2001 and in 2008 she was made an MBE for services to the county. In 2014/15, she was elected by the Stevenage Borough Council to be Mayor of Stevenage, the first black woman to hold that role. All too sadly, with so much more work to do, so much more life to live, Sherma died suddenly in January 2017, following a subarachnoid haemorrhage, at the age of only 59. In February of that year, Stevenage Borough Council posthumously conferred on Sherma the title of Honorary Freeman.
Reading Kate Clanchy’s excellent and moving book about teaching, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, got me thinking again about my own early years as a teacher.
In the late 1950s, in London at least, the shortage of teachers was such that it was possible to apply for a teaching post with fairly meagre academic qualifications – in my case, one A level and a handful of O levels (as they used to be called) and some experience of the world of work. Having evaded National Service via a dodgy medical examination and kept myself gainfully employed for a couple of undemanding years, I’d come to the conclusion that I should be doing something more worthwhile than packing parcels or writing up the efficiencies of various information recording systems. I applied for a place on a Teacher Training course at Goldsmiths, only to realise, after I’d been accepted, that in order to qualify for a full grant, I needed not only to have paid two years of National Insurance contributions but to be over 21, which was still almost a year away … so what better use of the time than to experience what it would be like as a classroom teacher at first hand?
The school I was assigned to was a small mixed secondary modern in Harlesden, a mainly working class area of North West London; two single storey prefabricated buildings – Upper School and Lower – with a playground in between. It was, as I discovered, a highly regulated set-up. Not only did the staff from the two parts of the school rarely mix, socially or otherwise, each half had clearly segregated staff rooms, one for male teachers, one female. And the kettle (of course!) was in the male staff room, which meant that when any woman teacher wanted to make a cup of tea, she had to knock on the door and ask permission to enter. Amazing, but true.
It was a three-form entry school, in which the first two streams were taught in mixed groups, whereas those in the bottom stream, for reasons that were never adequately explained, were segregated into girls and boys. In my charge were to be the first year, third stream boys, never less than thirty in number and on some days, I swear, closer to forty. Or maybe that was just how it seemed.
In addition to an extended form time which began each day, I was responsible for teaching my class English – for which extra lessons were timetabled – Geography and, heaven help me – and, more so, them – Maths. No wonder they never progressed beyond the most simple of simple equations. I was also to teach Geography to several other classes in the Lower School, and, in the absence of any other volunteers among the staff – the PE teacher certainly wasn’t going to give up his evenings and Saturday mornings – I took over ‘managing’ the Under 14 soccer team. The first time out we shipped ten goals, scoring none in return, and I had the devil’s own job persuading the few genuinely talented players we had to turn out again. Soon after that I found myself coaching the small but eager athletics team ahead of the local inter-school sports competition, and, on mornings when it always seemed to be cold and raining, accompanying the cross-country team to muddy destinations within the borough and beyond. For all this, I received a sum slightly above 50% of a qualified teacher’s starting salary. Just as well I was still living at home.
But switch back for a moment to the morning of my first day, when, having arrived early, anxious and more than a little bewildered, I was summoned to the headmaster’s office. The head was in his late fifties, possibly older, with neatly brushed silver-grey hair, a dark pinstripe suit, carefully knotted tie and highly polished shoes. He welcomed me with a firm handshake and a few well-honed words about the ethos of the school. Hard work, discipline and respect. In relation to which, he directed my attention to a large, leather-bound book on a table near the door. The Punishment Book. Only two members of staff were allowed to administer corporal punishment, he informed me solemnly, the Deputy Head and himself. And every instance had to be recorded in that book, which was inspected by the local authority. Was that understood? Yes, I said. Good. And as I was leaving the room, he handed me a cane.
Caning. It was how the school functioned, survived. Any pupil late for morning school, whoever had drawn playground duty administered a single stroke of the cane; more than five minutes late, two strokes, one on each hand. So it was with talking out of turn in class, flicking ink pellets, persistently turning round – out here now and hold out your hand. Some of the staff, a few, all men, seemed to relish the opportunity; the teacher in the classroom next to mine, who permanently wore a red tie and sold copies of the ‘Daily Worker’ in the High Street on Saturdays, had been known to resort to the wooden blackboard compass as an alternative to the cane.
Not knowing any better, I fell into line. The cane, after all, was all too familiar from my recent years in a boys’ grammar school, where, being a bit of cheeky Herbert with a liking for the sound of his own voice, a week in which I didn’t receive a caning was rare. You learned to keep the knuckle of your thumb tucked as far off target as possible and winked at your mates on your way back to your desk. And, in similar fashion, the thirty or so eleven and twelve year olds I met every morning and in whose company I spent a good proportion of the day, rarely seemed to mind. It was just school.
But perhaps because we spent so much time together, something strange happened – strange, in that it wasn’t something I’d really anticipated – I got to like them. Even – or especially – I’ll call him Derek – who lived with his father in a broken-down travellers’ caravan and came to school regularly smelling of urine; Derek, who, one day when I had pushed him too far, threw a chair in my direction then hurled himself against the wall alongside the blackboard and sobbed for a full half hour. At heart, they were nice kids, labouring, a good many of them, under a more than average set of disadvantages, and when it came down to it, they wanted to do well; they wanted to please.
Somewhere around the end of the first term, it dawned on me that, with them at least, I no longer needed to resort to the cane; I pushed it into the back of the drawer and there it stayed.
My youngest daughter, Molly Ernestine, can be no stranger to regular readers of this blog, not least for her photographs, which, in addition to being posted here on occasion, are prominently featured alongside my poems in the recent Shoestring Press publication, Aslant. So, on Fathers’ Day, time, perhaps, to cast an eye towards my older children, Tom & Leanne, who shared their 50th birthday at the end of last year.
First, a little look back …
and here, older now …
MAKING MAPS for Tom
Pushing up from Browning
through the Blackfeet Reservation
white crosses at the roadside
in fives and sixes now,
dead in the back yards
of broken shacks
We grin as ‘All Shook Up’
grinds out from the radio
lean our heads close and
sing as hard as we can
Driving through England
memory surprises me …
You made dams wherever we went
crouched patient over small streams
all the way from Castle to Iceberg
Lake, stopping time with your hands
When the deer breathed down
through the trees to the salt lick
at dusk I reckoned you’d earned it
Storms and rainbows
surrounded us. We drove
through three states,
three thousand miles
and love drove us fast together.
… later still, Leanne in Paris …
It seems too much of a cliché,
almost, to tell it,
but there, up on the counter
of the Hollywood Canteen,
there amongst 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
with some cute little kid
watching the sun go down –
as if it could ever happen.
Jesus! It’s like your parents
bringing you up to believe
it’s possible to tell the truth,
when one minute after they
let you out into the world
you can see everyone else is lying.
You 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 just
haven’t the strength to stand
up to them, not on my own,
and that’s what I am.
And happiness, that’s a laugh
and a half, and one thing I’m
sure of, it isn’t sitting out
on a dumb porch into the middle
of nowhere staring into some
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.
Here they are, almost up to date …
And lest you think she’s been forgotten, this is Molly and I enjoying another afternoon watching Notts County. Come on you Pies!
My parents, Tom and Helen – Thomas Herbert Harvey and Helen Barton White – were married in the St. Pancras Registrar’s Office, Highgate Road, London, on the 29th of August, 1936; the marriage, as the certificate testifies, being solemnized in the presence of their mothers, Alice Harvey and Louise Barton White. My father’s father – no knowing if he were present or not – is listed as John James Harvey, Railway Engine Driver, and my mother’s father as John Barton White, Dramatic Author (deceased).
The certificate gives my father’s occupation as a commercial clerk, but lists my mother as a spinster without rank or profession, whereas I had always believed that she would already have been employed at Leonard’s, the dress shop in Kentish Town where she worked, initially as a salesgirl and later manager and buyer, until ill health finally forced her to retire. And there is one other anomaly, though it would not have been evident at the time: my father’s age is given as 30, my mother’s as 32, when she was, in fact, 35, the true date of her birth, 1901, not coming to light until she died.
In those early years of their marriage, the years before the war, it seems they went on holiday to the Continent – as they would have called it – on more than one occasion, beginning with a honeymoon in Ostend, on the Belgian coast, which is where, I believe, this photograph was taken.
The swimsuit he’d been wearing earlier,
my father, a single strap draped,
Johnny Weissmuller style, over one shoulder, set aside now in favour of pale slacks, white shirt, collar splayed open
across the lapels of his blazer; sitting a little self-consciously
alongside my mother, smart
in her polka-dot dress, white shoes;
the two of them staring back at the camera, that picture the beach photographer
will display proudly later in his window.
The first time he’d set eyes on my mother,
she’d been standing close against the piano,
perfectly still,her voice small and clear yet somehow distant, disarming;
the way, as the last notes faded,
silence seemed to fold about her …
Now she sits with her arm resting on the check tablecloth, her hand
close to his but not quite touching;
the café doors behind them open, waiter hovering, a tune somewhere playing. the world waiting …
Those carefree days before the war.
… from Aslant (Shoestring Press, Nottingham. 2019)
For some years – a period that, for me, encompassed the first ten Resnick novels – Lonely Hearts to Last Rites – Daniel Woodrell and I shared the same publisher in the States, the redoubtable Marian Wood at Henry Holt & Company. Address: 115 West 18th St., New York 10011 – I remember it well.
Whereas Marian would have worked closely with Dan from the first draft manuscript on, with Resnick she would have bought US and Canadian rights to books that already existed in published form. For many publishers that might mean little more than commissioning a new jacket, scouting out some blurbs that would mean something to American consumers, and maybe – just maybe – sending a junior through the manuscript with the task of Americanising those ‘difficult’ British terms which might defeat US readers – ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’ and ‘sidewalk’ instead of ‘pavement’. Not so Marian. She was as eager to get to grips with the text as would have been the case were she the primary editor, and, more importantly, she was keen to make suggestions as to how the series and its central characters might best be developed, pointing out weaknesses that should and could be avoided. When, in Easy Meat, for instance, I ventured to set Resnick up in a relationship with a teacher named Hannah Campbell, Marian argued quite fiercely that I should make her a far stronger character than she first appeared to be, more conscious of the feminist issues of the time.
Most importantly, she championed my books, just as she did Dan’s, in the face of sales figures that would have had Holt’s accountants sadly shaking their heads. We were her authors, her boys, and she believed in us, which didn’t mean she was above putting us in our place if she thought it was deserved; the only reason I can get away with publishing the pair of you, she pointed out on more than one occasion, is because I also publish Sue Grafton.
I first met Dan Woodrell in St. Louis, probably the largest city close to the Ozarks, the vast rural area of Missouri where he had been born and continued to live. Both with new books out – Dan’s Give Us a Kiss (the one that gave birth to the term Country Noir) and my 8th Resnick, Easy Meat – we were due to appear at Big Sleep Books, then under the management of Helen Simpson. I assumed that, in the normal way of things, I would read an extract from my novel before chatting amiably to would-be customers and, finally, signing as many copies as I could lay my hands on – the usual malarkey – and I’d imagined Dan would do the same. But no. Dan doesn’t read, Helen said. He just doesn’t. Ever. He’s shy. Which would have left me showcasing, while Dan sat quietly in the corner, nursing a beer. It didn’t seem right. Okay, I said, tell him if he won’t read then I won’t either. [Clearly, to anyone who knows me, a barefaced lie: given an audience in excess of one I’ll read till someone finally puts out all the lights and jiggles the keys.] To Helen’s surprise, however, Dan agreed. Perhaps he was being polite to a fellow author visiting from across the Atlantic. And, of course, he read brilliantly, bringing out every nuance of the language, every ounce of humour, every frisson of sexuality, and left me thanking the heavens I’d read first!
Give Us a Kiss is told in the first person, its central character, Doyle Redmond, is Ozark born and bred, a writer who – like so many of us at times – feels his work is both undersold and misunderstood. Dan getting some of his frustrations out into the open. Here’s a couple of examples …
I always get called a crime writer, though to me they are slice-of-life dramas. They remind me of my family and friends, actually. I hate to think I’ve led a “genre” life, but that seems to be the category I’m boxed in.
… and …
I sat up, crossed my legs beneath me. “When I’m dead they’ll say I was ‘passionate and ruggedly self-reliant,'” I claimed.
“Oh, Doyle.” Lizbeth’s lips had that puffy, tenderer look lips get from deep kissing someone new. “They’re not going to talk about you when you’re dead.”
That sealed the end. That comment. This was the sorest spot she could gouge at, my life’s work to this point being four published novels nobody much had read, let alone bought or reviewed prominently. This sore spot of mine had yet to quit oozing since the last book had been met with a great, vicious silence, and for her to stick me there meant it was over for sure.
Some time after our meeting in St. Louis, Dan and his wife, the novelist, Katie Estill, moved, temporarily, to San Francisco, which is where my partner, Sarah, and I got to hang out with them a little. One of the reasons Dan had been attracted to San Francisco was its associations with Dashiell Hammett, a writer he greatly admired; Hammett had lived there in the 1920s, and it was there, in a top floor apartment on Post Street, that he had written the bulk of The Maltese Falcon. So, in honour to both Hammett and his private eye, Sam Spade, we went to John’s Grill, which has long traded on its association with The Maltese Falcon, and ordered the over-priced but tasty lamb chops, as briefly featured in in the novel …
He went to John’s Grill, asked the waiter to hurry his order of chops, baked potato, and sliced tomatoes, ate hurriedly, and was smoking a cigarette with his coffee when a thick-set youngish man with a plaid cap set askew above pale eyes and a touch cheery face came into the Grill and to his table.
“All set, Mr Spade. She’s full of gass and rearing to go.”
We also went to Burritt Street, where Spade’s partner, Miles Archer, was lured to his death by his seemingly innocent client, Brigid O”Shaughnessy, and not shot and killed, as she had claimed, by one Floyd Thursby.
Spade said” “Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years’ experience as a detective to be caught like that by a man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was a dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb …
He ran his tongue over the inside of his lips and smiled affectionately at the girl. He said: “But he’d’ve gone up there with you, angel, if he was sure nobody else was up there. You were his client, so he would have had no reason for not dropping the shadow on your say-so, and if you caught up with him and asked him to go up there he’d’ve gone. He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”
Finally, before leaving the subject of Daniel Woodrell, it’s worth noting that of his nine novels, three have been turned into films: not a bad ratio. Woe to Live On was filmed by Ang Lee in 1999 under the title, Ride With the Devil; Debra Granik made Winter’s Bone in 2010; and Tomato Red was filmed by Juanita Wilson in 2017. Of the three, it seems to me that Winter’s Bone is the most successful. In part this may be due to the fact that it was largely filmed in the Ozarks, where the novel is set, and Dan, I believe, helped both with the locations and in persuading some of the locals to take part. Without losing on the finer points of atmosphere and characterisation, Granik never allows the pace of the narrative to slacken, and she secures a compelling performance from Jennifer Lawrence in her ‘breakthrough’ role.
The poet and environmentalist, Nancy Nielsen, died on May 23rd, 2016, after a lengthy period of declining health. Her partner for many years, Alan Brooks, has recently published a collection of poems, maybe someday, written during the last months of her illness and the two years following, and is putting together a collection of Nancy’s poems for future publication.
I was fortunate enough to visit Alan and Nancy a number of times in their secluded cabin on the shores of Straight Bay, in Lubec, Maine, and remember with pleasure evenings when, after supper, we sat around and read poems, our own and others’, and, if we were very lucky, Alan could be persuaded to fetch his guitar down from the attic and give us a song or two.
What follows is a poem of Nancy’s, sent as a New Year card; a poem of mine, published in a slightly different version in Out of Silence, and two poems of Alan’s from maybe sunday,
The Light This Morning for Nancy Nielsen
The light this morning is touching everything
the poet says, and I imagine you
standing tall again
no longer numbed or navvied
letting loose the dogs
then stepping with them
into the pool of early morning,
the dew on the grass
fresh around your feet
I see you
walking in this early light
bending to your garden
setting things to rights,
these moments before
the day itself is up and going
A bird starts up from the trees
and you turn back towards the house
the cool of the kitchen
smell of coffee newly ground
the small clear crack of shell
as the eggs are loosed into the bowl
apples sliced straight into the butter
foaming ready in the pan
flour, a dusting of sugar, cinnamon:
The taste of it;
the cabin encircled, almost, by trees;
the clearing into which we walked
and you walked out to greet us
the light around us touching everything
Your poet’s eye
your stubborn hardiness and grace.
At Your Graveside
faint skirl of gulls from the flats –
ache of a yellowleg’s cry from the marsh: end end end end end summer’s ending
The sky today holds everything
we ever asked of it.
Encircled by goldenrod,
I say your name over and over –
you, who are now in this earth and of it.
Leaf shadows play
among first leaves falling.
Coyote Came In The Night
Coyote came in the night. I was gone.
Coyote, surely you know
we moved away years ago?
Surely you watched us leave –
felt our sadness –
saw us, a rare once in awhile,
return by day for an hour or two
and mostly me, alone, and then
and then, and then
only me alone?
She would have smiled, Coyote,
to see by first light that you’d visited –
come right to the back door –
and that you’d eaten of our fallen apples.
You sang to her often
and she called you Wise One,
sometimes even Friend.
Soon I will be here, Coyote,
both day and night. Come to me then
not as a tradesman or servant.
Our house is too humble for that.
Come to the front door as honoured guest.
Sing to me in the crisp nights of Fall
as a reveler, and in the longest nights
as a caroler singing
beyond this world’s grief
As I explained in a recent post, my mother came from a theatrical family; her father, John Barton White [otherwise known, for his romantic proclivities, as ‘The Bounder’] was both playwright and actor and ran his own successful touring company; her mother, Louise, was the eldest of four sisters, all of whom appeared on the stage from a very early age – Louise, Katie, Ruby and Pearl. Both her father and mother died before I was born, but I did get to meet my great aunts, Katie and Pearl on several occasions, most memorably, in Brighton, early in 1942.
By then, Katie would have been in her early 70s, Pearl some ten years younger. I would have been some months past my third birthday and not long started at kindergarten under the watchful eye of the nuns of the La Sainte Union Catholic School in north London, and the war would have been well into its third year.
We were in the kitchen when the bomb dropped. Or was it bombs? Whatever the case, the sound of the explosion was sudden, frightening; the vibrations close and strong enough to send every pot and pan from the high open shelves cannoning across the room and along the floor. What happened then, I don’t know. Did I scream or cry? I imagine my mother attempting to comfort me while my aunts, perhaps, put on a brave show of it, singing – they both regularly appeared in musical theatre and pantomime – as they cleared away and set things to rights.
There was more to come. We were walking, my mother and I, along the front, heading for the station, when a German plane – I presume on its way home after a raid – flew low towards us, strafing the promenade with machine gun fire. From nowhere, a man rushed towards us and shepherded us urgently towards one of the benches, under which we took shelter. It was over in moments: I remember it clearly. That and the saucepans flying from the shelves. Brighton, 1942.