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.
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 …
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!]