My mother died thirty one years ago today, at the age of 85.
My mother died thirty one years ago today, at the age of 85.
My dad died in Whittington Hospital thirty three years ago today; he was the same age as I am now.
My father is dying.
Scent of apples from the night stand.
I reach out my hand and rest one
hard against my face; he taught me
to tell the real thing from the fake:
hold it close beside the ear and shake.
A genuine Cox, the seeds will rattle
loose inside their case.
You see. He told me
and I swallowed every word by rote.
Five cotton towns of Lancashire,
five woollen towns, four rivers
that flow into the Wash – Witham,
Welland, Nene and Great Ouse.
Once learned, never forgotten.
My father is dying.
He died nine years ago this June.
They phoned from the hospital with the news.
His face a cask once usedfor storing living things.
A cup of tea, grown cold and orange,
on the stand beside the bed.
Fingernails like horn, unclipped.
Though dead, my father is still dying.
Oh, slowly, sure and slow as the long fall of rain.
I reach out again for the apple
and bite into its flesh and hold him,
bright and sharp,
safe inside the hollow of my mouth.
from Out of Silence, New & Selected Poems, Smith/Doorstop, 2014
I’m reminded today, with much coverage in the media of this being the 50th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper, that, some good few years ago, I was in a men’s clothing shop on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham when one of the assistants came up to me and introduced himself as a former student of mine at Heanor-Aldercar secondary school in the 60s. “You won’t remember me,” he said. And I promptly apologised, because that was, indeed, the case.
One thing I’ll always remember about you, he said, you came into our English class one day with the record player and said, Right, you’ve got to listen to this, and played the whole of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through.
It would have been around the same time that the Head of English at the school, Gordon Leake, and myself, inspired, I think, by having seen The Mersey Poets – Messrs Henri, McGough and Patten, along with Heather Holden – performing at the Co-Op Theatre,
decided to suggest to the students in our top set of 13/14 year olds that they ask their parents for the money to buy individual copies of the recently published Penguin Modern Poets 10 : The Mersey Sound for themselves. This despite being wary of possible parental complaints about some of the contents once the books were taken home, though, in the event, we need not have worried. No words of complaint were forthcoming. And when, happily, I met up with another former Heanor-Aldercar student, Mel Cox, many years later – 2014 – at a reading in Derby Waterstones, he had brought his well-thumbed copy of The Mersey Sound with him, along with a copy of Prévert’s Paroles, which I’d signed back then and given him as a prize.
None of that would likely happen today, I suspect, at least not in the same way – aside, of course, from teachers begging money to buy books. Plenty of that still around.
For the present, in these memories only …
Brilliant Corners, a journal, as it says, of jazz and literature, is published by Lycoming College, Williamsport, PA 17701, USA, and edited by Sascha Feinstein. Poetry, prose, in-depth interviews.
The current issue includes poems by Billy Collins and Barry Wallenstein (whose gig at the Vortex with the Mike Hobart Band is still a vivid memory) and a lengthy – 20 pages – interview Sascha Feinstein conducted with me here in London last October.
Starting with my early experiences of listening to jazz and the heady days in which I played tea chest bass in what might just have been the world’s worst skiffle band, Sascha goes on to explore the connections between Resnick and jazz, both as a character trait and as an influence on the books themselves. There’s some discussion about the fairly frequent occurrence of jazz in my short fiction – stories like Now’s the Time and Minor Key – and the importance of jazz in the work of other writers such as Bill Moody and Michael Connelly.
Around the time of the interview, I’d just come back from a short tour of Nottinghamshire Libraries, reading some of my more jazz-based poetry, plus a Resnick extract or two, with the band, Blue Territory, so, inevitably, we talked about Poetry and Jazz, its beginnings, and why it can be so rewarding to perform. (See Wallenstein & Hobart above.)
For any students out there searching for a research topic in the area of jazz and crime fiction, this interview, taken together with Age Hedley Peterson’s Jazz i crime literature – Resnick and all that jazz, published in the April/May/June 2016 issue of the Danish magazine Jazz Special, and reprinted in translation here, would be a pretty good place to start.
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 …
(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
said her mother a
mister dante called you
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
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 email@example.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …