Monday, November 24, 2008

The dedication

Ok, so Lady G is dedicated to the Coventry City Library Service.

A bit odd?

I work in an educational system that regards literature as an unexploded bomb. I’m supposed to teach students how to recognise and defuse the text’s invidious and insidious ideology. Always the text, never the poem, or the play, or the novel

Reading as a kind of safe sex. In which nothing is risked and nothing created. Self defeating and pointless. Less than sex. At best a Rubik’s cube or cross word puzzle, a time filler. At worst, something to be avoided at all costs unless sanitized.

Don’t read writers that don’t agree with you.

Why we take readers and teach them to resist what they are reluctant to read in the first place is beyond me. It’s not just that I know the theory behind the methodology is flawed, it’s far more personal. I owe too much to books and libraries.

When I was very young, my father took me to the Central Library in Coventry. Having left school at twelve, he was determined we would read and write, swim dance and make music.

I still think four out of five wasn’t bad.

The Central Library in Coventry was a special place, right in the heart of the city. It was by the cathedrals and one bright day we were early enough to stop off on the way to look at the sunlight coming though the glass in the new cathedral.

The library itself was in an old building. The poetry was kept on an upper balcony you reached by climbing a spiral stone staircase. At the far end of the veranda, in an alcove, they kept the poetry books. There was room for one chair.

Browsing the library’s small collection I had myself a fine if erratic education. There were school book poets, and poets my parents knew, and the poets I discovered for myself. I can still remember reading Lawrence’s Pansies and thinking I had stumbled over something illegal.

Downstairs, in the fiction and history sections, there were worlds I could enter that were immeasurable distances from the one I lived in. Ways of thinking that I would never have encountered in my own life.

The record library was a later but an equal revelation. Alain Stival, the Bothy Band, Planxty, coming out of the speakers. Music I could have heard nowhere else because no one I knew, knew anything about them. Or if they did disparaged it as diddly dee music.

No one said; you’re the son of a migrant factory worker! These books and ideas can’t be yours. Literature is an elitist activity carrying the ideology of the ruling patriarchy. And thank God no one said, beware, you will encounter events, ideas, attitudes that will make you feel uncomfortable, make you think, may challenge your own assumptions.

So a thank you to the city libraries. For the education I got in them and the dreams they started.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The form

Traveling through Siberia, on the train, in winter. I heard this story:

There are places in Siberia that are so cold that if you step outside and open your mouth, your teeth will crack. As the first cold snap comes, if you stand on one bank of the river, and call across to the other, your words will freeze in the air and be trapped midstream. Only when the spring comes will they be free to move again, though by then their audience is gone. Mixed with all the other words that were spoken and frozen they go swirling down stream, confused, confusing, looking for someone to hear them.

This is how I thought of the sequence: disembodied voices, swirling, caught by the geographical space of Coventry. Like those Siberian conversations, they muddle together as the sequence progresses. Is it Tom or Leofric speaking? Who is this narrator who crops up occasionally, who is not any of the characters? As the second section progresses, it trails off, starts to repeat itself, as if the voices are being blown away, as if the speakers are trying to get the message correct, but only succeeding in making it more muddled.

The final words are Leofric’s. But Leofric never went to Samarkand.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


Some voices, like the Roman soldier's, were hard to find. Others simply refused to speak. Here are two favourites I couldn't get into the twelve line format. The first amuses me, the second speaks for itself.

1) In 1678 the son of one James Swinerton played the role of Lady Godiva in the Godiva procession. So they dressed up a boy to look like an undressed woman.

2) In 1556, John Careless, a Coventry Weaver, was in prison for his protestant
beliefs. He was temporarily released, on his oath, to perform his role in his craft's pageants: 'The Purification of Mary' and 'The Disputation in the Temple". When it was over "he returned agayne into Prison at the houre appointed"
Two years later, having been transferred to London, he was burned for heresy.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A question of style.

Over at the poet’s on fire forum there’s a link to an article which describes, in a throw away comment, the ‘accessibility” of Seamus Heaney’s poetry as “Insulting”.

The second part of Lady Godiva and Me is set after the second world war, in a world I remember growing up in. I wanted to write about my parents' generation, and to honour what I remembered as their best qualities. It’s easy to revile the patriarchal discourse of the 1950s, and to forget that gender assumptions worked both ways. I had met men who went to war, in both 1914-18 and 1940-45. I knew they had seen and done things, believing it was their duty, that were beyond my ability to understand.

I remember men who worked foul jobs in car factories, a world away from today’s assumptions about careers and “self –fulfillment” and “self-expression”, because they had families and they lived by the mantra of “a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, food on the table.” True I worked in pubs and saw them drink and gamble and try to avoid going home. I watched marriages where there seemed no warmth at all and wondered how they ever got close enough to conceive their children. I saw women riding roughshod over men too tired to fight and men treat their wives like un hired help. I saw symbiotic relationships where the world was divided into His jobs and Her jobs so strictly an Inuit would have felt uncomfortable.

So I knew enough to avoid romanticising them, but I wanted to honour what I perceived as being worthy of respect.

And that left me with a problem of style.

The first poem I remember being aware of is Kipling’s Three Part Song. Grandfather read it for a dialect archive, and I have a digital copy of his crackly voice speaking in what is supposed to be broad Sussex. For me it has the same beauty as Kavanagh’s “Kerr’s Ass’, a poetry rising out of specific time and place. Place names that are their own poetries. A sense of self, tethered to landscape, given depth and resilience by history.

My father and his family, who were Irish, were Robert Service fans. And I can still recite the shooting of Dan McGrew from memory.

But I couldn’t write the type of poetry these people read. Kipling and Service won’t do as models. But I didn’t see the point in writing it in something that would be “modern” and unreadable to the people I was writing about.

Since this was about home, then one other home is traditional music. I came back to poetry on the back of the ballads. If each section of lady g is supposed to be a voice speaking, then ballad form seemed a natural choice. The surface would not be opaque, and the artistry would be in the architecture of the sequence. Like the Sherbourne, bubbling away underground you can follow it if you’re so inclined.

If you think that telling stories in a way that can be followed is an insult to the reader, then I have nothing polite to say.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Imagine how different the world was.

No photographs. No recorded voices. No twenty four hour news feed. No global geography worth the name. How limited knowledge and how awkward its diffusion. How poor its chances of survival.

The fact we even know there was a woman called Godgifu seems miraculous.

Unless you were a member of the court, you wouldn’t even know what the king looked like. The possibility of hearing his biological voice would be minimal. The families settled around Coventry would know the Earl and his wife, but that would be familiarity. How important context would be. How crucial the personalized links that verify your identity. Why your social role was such a definition.

And then think of how strange the world. Imagine distance measured by effort and time with no global context and no predictability. Drop an educated person down on the world somewhere and tell them where they are, and they’d have a sense of what lies in each direction. But for someone in Coventry? If you went that way you reached Winchester, or London, and if you kept going, the coast, and France and then the pilgrim routes. That way, north, York, the sea lanes to Denmark. Vague cosmologies; detailed where the route is personally known, vague where it’s only hearsay. And the world beyond the known route, fading into vagueness. Peopled by strange possibilities.

Everything passed by word of mouth and stored in human memory. So the man who tells you about the things he saw when he was traveling, passed on in a game of Chinese whispers, with no way of checking the truth or the source.

The traveler who comes to your monastery and says…have you heard about the Earl’s wife. Have you heard what she did over in Coventry?