I was born in Stockport, in July 1940, during an air-raid. From the hospital window you could see Manchester burning in the distance. The Germans’ navigational abilities seemed to be poor, because they dropped their bombs on Stockport from time to time, though what they were after was the transport nexus of Manchester. It was also said that they unloaded unused bombs on us on the way back, and that the aeroplanes’ engines had a “heavy” sound when they were coming in full of bombs, but a “lighter” sound when they were on the way back, and listening to them, this seemed to be true. I remember the rising and falling, wailing tones of the sirens warning of the approach of bombers, always in the night, when we blacked out all the windows and the infant (me) was put in a box under the table, or later we gathered in the semi-underground brick shelter in the garden, a dozen neighbours in two rows facing each other, drinking mugs of tea by the light of candles while the wailing and growling proceeded overhead. I remember a great barrage balloon floating over the district. When I was four or five a bomb dropped on a cross-roads half a mile away. I remember visitors talking about it, and the sentence, “There was nothing left of young xxx you know, but what they could scrape off the wall.” The all-clear siren was a continuous held tone; I remember the sense of relief.
Stockport is an industrial market town south of Manchester now absorbed into the metropolis, but even in my day the buildings were continuous from the centre of the one to the centre of the other, nine miles. Stockport was once a mill-town specialising in men’s felt hats, because the dampness of the atmosphere facilitated the production of felt. Then around mid-century men mostly stopped wearing hats, except for the perennial northern peaked cap, which was mostly not made from felt. This left Stockport as the nondescript block of urban spread I was brought up in, with interesting geological features at the old centre, red sandstone cliffs, caves, a bridge over a ravine to reach the market place, and the ingenuity with which all this had been covered with buildings. On my last attempt to visit the place it seemed to have disappeared behind enormous coloured tin sheds and the main road through it avoided it and before you knew what was happening ejected you into the hills in the direction of Glossop. But the cultural facilities of Manchester, which were not negligible in those days, were within easy reach, and the western slopes of the Pennines are visible in the distance from Stockport, with an arm of them coming round to the south in Cheshire. The true Peak District was an hour’s bus journey away and there I first learned to detest climbing big steep hills in the rain, mainly because the nearest portion of it was what the tourist traffickers call the “Dark Peak” – dismal sublimity of high gritstone hills covered in tough grass or peat groughs, a tree-less environment created almost entirely by a century of industrial pollution sweeping over in the wind from the surrounding metropoles. Relentless country, shelf plateaux with exposed rock edges, loud streams, bog and gravel, the outcrops on the top of Kinder carved into great whorls and scoops by the grit-laden wind. So masses of inscape, if I went out there alone, and before I possessed a camera.
A dozen street photographs of Stockport around 1900 by the photographer Frank Lance can be seen on the Stockport Corporation website. Some of them are beautifully composed, as good as Atget in Paris, in a way that the reticence and bareness of the scape facilitate. A curvature of vehicle-less cobbled streets over hill brows edged by iron railings and cottage rows against the verticals of dark warehouse blocks and factory chimneys in the sky. Although it was 40 years before my childhood this is Stockport much as I remember it, because the devastation came not with German bombs, but with 1960s development.
We inhabited this town as very much the normal, median stratum of society: office workers, shop assistants, nursing staff... working people, general public. In fact my parents called themselves, optimistically, “lower middle class”. My father was trained in cotton technology and might have ended up as manager of a mill but for the Lancashire cotton slump, which the war rescued him from and retrained him as an accountant. He worked as wages clerk in an engineering factory in Openshaw, a particularly dismal area on the Stockport side of Manchester. Whenever I visited it, in addition to the usual railway and factory smoke it was suffused with a dreadful acrid stench from a factory which manufactured suet. People walked around with handkerchiefs to their faces. Stockport had a brewery, Robinson’s, at its heart, which also issued what seemed to me to be a foul stench at regular intervals, but I later learned to appreciate its significance.
There was this constant rising or advancing. The grandparent generation had been in much the same occupations as our parents, and were householders, but they had risen from “little urban cottages” without services to modest Victorian houses. We lived in a newly built (1938) detached house with garden, full of modernity: fittings, furniture, equipment, decor, everything, but we were in the same condition. We moved breathlessly forward and stayed where we were, like trout attempting to jump waterfalls. Further back many, especially women, including most of my maternal grandfather’s family, had worked in the cotton mills, but man and wife now worked full-time in offices or shops. Some spoke with horror of the mills, a black age narrowly escaped from, but some didn’t, remembering a youthful vibrancy which transcended the conditions. Some remembered the great thunderous noise of the girls’ wooden clogs on the cobbled roads when crowds of them came out of the mill at the end of the day. I wore wooden clogs until I started school. Clearly some mills were a lot better than others, but they’d all closed down anyway, due to “foreign competition” or bare-headedness, and everyone was rising into the “lower middle class”. Whatever this condition of improvement was it was in acceleration and it drove some to despair, including my mother who had electro-convulsive therapy in the early 1950s. She suffered a mounting agony for which she could give no good reason, though there were reasons, further back. There was a dire childhood history of orphaning, ill-treatment by a stepmother, removal from home by the local authority... from which she was “rescued” by a maiden aunt, Aunt Sallie, who brought her up, and her brother, from the age of twelve or so. She had a hard time there too but was ushered into comparative prosperity and hope as she grew up, got married to a kind and industrious man, and survived the troubles of the war. And then when everything was material amelioration her life crashed of its own accord. Her history, though much mulled over, didn’t seem to account fully for her condition, which I at twelve saw as self-inflicted. Among many other symptoms she declared that she was unable to sleep, and called in the doctor, who said, “Don’t you worry, Mrs Riley, sleep is not all that important. As long as you’re still eating all right...” She stopped eating next day. The dawn of modernity seemed to have brought with it an almost suicidal determination to fall.
There was this constant differentiation, this exceptionality. The sense of being by nature better, above, ahead. Having special features, whether they hurt you or comfort you or drive you to distraction. It was stuffed into me at the family table and motivated me through a school career in which I was at first classed as factory-fodder, passed the 11+ examination and found my way into a university, and has never settled. It was what lifted us out of the mire of dark Satanic mills. But I also hated it, from the first, knowing that people aren’t better by nature but become better in their acts and works, and even then not as a possession, a personal quality. I desperately wanted my mother to stop all this fervid excitement and be “ordinary”.
Actually I passed the 11+ examination contrary to all expectation and slid immediately to the bottom of the class. The reason I passed was that I had been led to believe I was “delicate” and it was rumoured that if you failed the 11+ you were sent to a secondary-modern school, where new boys were initiated by having their heads pushed into the bowls of the school toilets which were then flushed. I reckoned this would probably kill me, and made some sort of superhuman effort.
The war nurtured exceptionality. I first met my father when I was seven, when he finally got back from post-war “mopping up operations” in Palestine. I don’t know what he was actually doing there and neither did he, but presumably something preparatory to the ethnic cleansing which began in 1948. I was sitting on the back doorstep playing with a friend when this strange man walked in in strange clothes with a kit-bag and said something like “Which of you is Peter?”
Exceptionality moved people away from commonality. Commonality said that we were more-or-less as we had been and looked to the past for comfort: our survival of it, but also our debt to it – in complicated and partly cyclic ways the past secured the future. To exceptionality the past had to be unspeakable and we fled it.
Aunt Sallie lived, until I was 13, in an old cottage a hundred yards away and was my surrogate grandmother. The cottage was small, full of antiques and had no electricity; she loved it and wanted to die there, but wasn’t allowed to. Because my mother worked, I went there after school and, in the winter, sat with her as it got dark and we lit the candles, had cups of tea, and I spent a lot of time doing two things: contemplating and poking the coal fire which was a vertically heaped black-lead grate, and playing her collection of 78s, mostly music hall, early tin-pan-alley, brass bands and comedy, on an old horned wind-up gramophone. This was commonality: being and belonging there with everything as promised, one of two spirits inhabiting those places. I scraped accumulated ash off the bars of the grating.
There was this sense of moving into a coldness. There was a great aunt and uncle, Charlie and Eliza, who lived in a terraced street in Edgeley, and hosted a family Christmas party every Christmas Day. Four or five families and several individuals crammed into the house in the middle of the afternoon and sat round a table that completely filled the back room for an enormous Christmas dinner. And the whole evening was spent in games and entertainment: pass the parcel, musical chairs, charades, blind man’s bluff, communal carols, solo performances, monologues, jokes, roaring coal-fire. The children had the run of the place, chasing each other up and down stairs, getting in everybody’s way. Nobody who didn’t temperamentally fit in (like some of the husbands, for the hosting family had mainly daughters) could get away with it – they just melted into the occasion. Me too – a desperately shy child of eight, rolled off his chair with laughter and banged his head on the table leg. An introverted 15-year old schoolboy confronted with, indeed pressed against, his pretty girl cousins, forgot to blush. Indeed I think there might occasionally have been some hanky-panky on the landing. I learned later that there were exceptionalities even in this tribalism: another sister of Eliza’s called Martha, who regularly turned up at these events but was invariably so drunk by the time she got there that she wasn’t admitted and all doors, front and back, were locked against her. In the late fifties Charlie died, and Eliza, ageing and unwell, moved out of the house and into the modern house of one of her daughters. There was one attempt, about 1957, to revive the annual Christmas party in this house. Most of the same people assembled, but it didn’t work and was never tried again. Not that it was a disaster, but it was cold. There was no inner fire. People finally sat around on the seats and, I can’t remember, possibly the TV was switched on, if there was one. It was nobody’s fault, and it seemed to me at the time that it was the very house and its furnishing, it was the modernity itself, and the “doing well”, which killed the assembly. Aunt Sallie had to move out of her cottage to a place in a home, which she was lucky to get because they were in short supply and one of the uncles pulled some strings, and this move was into the same coldness – though physically it was warm. She suffered from bronchitis and the cottage was damp with no heating beyond the open coal grate which had to be reconstructed every morning, every drop of hot water came from a copper kettle sitting on the fire, every hot meal was cooked on it... and there she was in a big warm modern lounge in a comfortable modern armchair receiving visitors, crying. I think that every dying person I’ve known since then has died somewhere they didn’t want to be.
As for normal day-to-day living, it took place in streets. Your parents moved between home and work, you moved between home and school, and all this daily rhythmic to-and-fro took place through streets, big and little streets, streets leading to more streets, with areas of waste ground and parklands here and there, surrounded by streets. When not walking from A to B you mostly sat at desks or tables, or larked around in the various corners of free space which were to hand, or slept. Most people lived in standard three-bedroom brick houses in semi-detached rows, most streets resembling most others, but with an awareness of older and poorer cottage rows scattered here and there, mapping the farmed land it had all once been, and of better-off, possibly even middle-class, larger detached houses not far away. Both of these were enticingly interesting. To all outward appearances it was a dull place.
I mention these past things because as far as I am concerned it’s where I still am, and everyone else. This is the country, the dialect, the condition, we inhabit. Nothing has changed. The poetry arises from the entire history, the knowledge and the ignorance hand in hand. I write as a ten-year-old and I write as a 66-year old and as everything inbetween. This is the very individuality itself, the this-ness of a person’s being. The streets are the same streets: cobbled streets with barely a car touching them all week, and the car-inferno I now have to face every time I go to buy a loaf of bread. I go to places like Transylvania and the earthen village streets there are the ones I was brought up in, they have just been moved to the other side of Europe; the present tense includes the entire history. Mycenae is still alive in our hearts; we can speak directly as Mycenaeans, or their serfs, without erecting a scenario. See a book like Mark Edmonds, Prehistory in the Peak, 2001, for the possibilities of speaking directly as British Neolithic and finding you can’t do it authentically without recourse to a kind of poetry. As Tom Lowenstein found for his understanding of the Inuit.
Should it not feel strange, coming from this environment, to become involved in a career in poetry, which, whether it works or not, sees itself as positioned centrally and a modicum of success seems to confirm this: that it is “high culture”, the very contrary of “provincial”. Was it made possible by removal and disaffection from Stockport, by insertion in a very different milieu? Or was there a continuity established before exposure to all the aggression, snobbery and divisiveness of a current poetry scene. Possibly the art itself seemed to open directly into a central space wherever you came from. Perhaps none of it is surprising, or needs explaining. Perhaps the University of Cambridge and all that followed was no more culturally rich, sophisticated, better informed or in touch with modernity, than Stockport was, and the lives lived there no more fulfilled or creative.
In that case it is all one, and those northern streets are where I still am, the country, the condition, the dialect, that I inhabit. Nothing has changed. The poetry arises from the entire history, the knowledge and the ignorance hand in hand. I write as a fifteen-year-old and as a 70-year old and as everything in-between. This is individuality itself, the this-ness of a person’s being. The streets are the same streets: cobbled streets with barely a car touching them all week, and the car-inferno I now have to face every time I go to buy a loaf of bread. I go to places like Transylvania and the earthen village streets and wooden walls there are the ones I was brought up in, they have just been moved to the other side of Europe; the present tense includes the entire history. This simultaneity produces, of course, perceptual suffusion, the art of being both this and that, here and there, inevitably touched by melancholy for the loss of the singular. The 1939-1945 war dominated my first seven years and subsequently disrupted everyone’s sense of where and what they were.
North was not a problem. We knew of nothing that was denied us by being northern, nothing at any rate that we missed. We were hardly aware of “southerners” as a category. There was not the aggressive northernness I usually find when I go back there these days. Listen to the great northern comedians, some of whom I was lucky enough to see live – Arthur Askey, Stan Laurel, Frankie Howard, Les Dawson... The Northern accent is there, but it’s not stressed, it’s not pushed in your face. It’s more musical, an ironic counterpoint, a knowing wink of the servant class.
It was also important to fill the lungs and shout out the hymns. It was a powerful insight into how the lyrical text works, that it is not necessarily either small-scale or “personal”. We didn’t believe a word of it – well, some of us did, and one of my friends was to become a vicar, but he never seemed less ecclesiastical than when he was shouting out the hymns. And many other things, carols, anthems, Biblical readings, the occasional glimpses of further reaches in Latin. These things weren’t belief structures, they were magnificent participatory architecture. The great slow Victorian hymns arched over us and confirmed the vast extent of our breath, with all the doors open. The terms (God, Lord, faith, etc.) were linguistic abstracts of great power which lived on the surface of the text like magnificent frescoes, magnificent narratives. “And there were shepherds abiding in the fields...” None of us had more than the vaguest notion what kind of thing a shepherd was, or why it was abiding, it was as fictive as the storks that brought the babies. The babies arrived, the mutton was in the shops (not yet re-labelled “lamb”). “Angels” were not involved in this commerce that surrounded us, they were in “realms of glory” singing creation; they were winged words. It wasn’t just that we were momentarily enclosed in a mythology, it was also that the arena which lay open to the imagination stood revealed. The big songs and their occasions were like a theatrical illumination which was the epiphany of where and what we were, and would never desert us whatever we did or wherever we went. Some of us rejoiced in it and shrugged it off, forgot it completely; some of us rejoiced in it and took a message and then a refuge out of it which stuck to them; some of us rejoiced in it for ever after and took to poetry. We were never going to do any better than “The earth in solemn stillness lay To hear the angels sing.”
The life up there, the conditions, must have been very different for others, and must have fostered immense resentment, or dulled people through inferior education into a “working class” stratum which had lost all its purpose, and without the recompenses of the “black days” behind them. In my experience the most bitter and disappointed of those were the ones who were enrolled into Communistic and leftist workers’ movements and attached beliefs in the 1930s, which came to nothing and left everybody as powerless as they started but immensely disillusioned, or betrayed. I was a member of a little bunch of lucky “intellectual” adolescents catapulted out of the dark strata. But the point is that no amount of wealth and privilege could have made any such bunch any luckier, or could have gained any more for them, anywhere in the land, than we gained, intellectually, and in addition we were still able to participate in at any rate the dying echoes of a rich and rewarding localism. The details of public school life appalled us. To think that a modern society such as ours permitted such barbarism.
As for politics, the dropping of bombs on us was about enough politics for a lifetime.
We had nothing to complain about. We were not underprivileged, or economically disadvantaged, or in any way disregarded. We could do or get anything we wanted, as far as we knew, within the norms we inhabited, which were not restrictive in what mattered. Our sociality was as good as anyone else’s, and maybe held relict performances long lost to the four-wheel-drive Surrey boys playing at estate management. Long, long gone. Before the cold and boredom of modernity crept in we gathered at each others’ houses and sang. My “Uncle” (who was not even related) Walter was a brilliant pianist, adept at some kind of 1940s swing, also community singing and hymns for the local Sunday-school of which he was the superintendent. Otherwise he supervised the local marshalling yards. His wife, Jessie, a tiny woman from Oldham with a piercing voice and thick accent, was a brilliant comic actress. Given a good script she could have an audience helpless. My Uncle Norman was also a good swing (or kind of half-jazz) pianist who sometimes sat in on professional bands. My father was also a good pianist, indeed gave lessons, but stuck to amateur classical on account of family exceptionality. These people were not unrecognised flowers in a provincial desert. We recognised them. The school plays were more effective than most things I’ve seen on a stage since, and included rarities such as Milton’s Samson Agonistes, which the school did in about 1956. So it was with many things: choral societies, amateur theatricals, sport, Robinson’s brewery, and The Stockport Amateur Operatic Society which did musicals and whose Show Boat, circa 1955, was a triumph; I still remember that the rendition of Ol’ Man River stopped the show. It was all so much more than a replication; these performances reached their optimum because they were not subverted by an alien professionalism. They were for us and of us, there where we were. We didn’t go to London to see if it was being done any better there, why should we? We weren’t trying to copy something seen on TV. It had been like this for centuries. The Lancashire hand-loom weavers had their own unique and active musical culture in the 18th Century based on Handel. They couldn’t afford to buy the big printed scores of the oratorios so they wrote their own music. I only very recently discovered that traditions of west gallery music have persisted aurally in parts of the Southern Pennines to this day. Such conditions were progressively eroded, with a core persistence which was remarkably resilient. If we but knew it, Thomas Hardy was our spokesman. I caught the edge of this musical sociality. I later learned that if I’d been around fifty years earlier I would have known something far richer, but I would never have got out of it.
We got a good education, in my case by scholarship to a direct grant school at eleven, but that wasn’t the only way. We left the school with no excuse for not knowing the rudiments of science, an outline of European history and English literature, the musical classics, the siting and condition of the nations of half the globe, at least one foreign language, and the whereabouts of the hole in the hedge between us and the girls’ school. We were also, in spite of ourselves, kept physically fit. We were privileged, but didn’t feel it because we’d gotten there by work, passing examinations and doing our homework. Others paid for the privileges, and others were dumped in low-grade schools.
The culture we absorbed didn’t deal in “attitudes” but knowledge, and nobody ever suggested that we or anybody else had such a thing as an “identity” to be safeguarded, personal or group. We learned what we were as we went along, from within and without. There were inspirational teachers: the remarkable John Stanley, arts master, not so much for the art but for leading troupes of boys out on excursions: to archaeological excavation at Bakewell, to the Dolomites and the Pyrenees and around Italy and Spain, at a sufficiently slow pace and condition of venture for it never to be forgotten. And William Johnson, head of English, a Leavisite and admirer of T.S. Eliot, which was more-or-less what you needed at that stage of things. I leapt ahead of him and wrote the minutes of the school debating and literary society in the manner of Pound’s early Cantos. Pound became my aerial, the songs and the satire, the extraordinary “floating” of words into the mental air. Fifty years later I’m informed by some careerist tabloid poet-pundit that it was all a big mistake. It wasn’t. Later it was a horrific disaster but that didn’t invalidate the first lessons.
At sixth-form parties in our house when my parents were out, to which a few young women luckily gained access because of school contacts with local drama groups, I sometimes at the end of the evening turned the lights low and put Varèse’s Poème Electronique on the stereo. It usually went down very well. Those sonorous booms and a disappearing choir intoning what sounded very like “Ongar”... People sat and lay around, sipped their drinks and listened intently, and were very impressed. How was this possible? (a) Sexual activity of any kind was so unlikely as to be not worth thinking about, so proceedings didn’t splinter. We all stayed together. (b) Economic constraints on alcohol supply were such that we all still knew who and where we were. (c) There was no pop. What did we use the stereo for through the evening prior to Varèse? I don’t know, maybe some jazz or folk, or it was silent and we talked. The Beatles hadn’t yet struck, nobody was very interested in American Skiffle, R&B, C&W. Or whatever interest there was it didn’t become a necessity, key to personal forwardness and exclusivity, volume to the top. If maybe Lonnie Donegan was OK, or Mozart for that matter, you could also turn to, or accept when offered, Varèse, not having been primed to be repelled. (d) Something greater than any of these, something now totally out of the question, which meant that we had and needed no leverage onto Varèse, no position under threat, no programme, no correctness. Varèse was not part of some campaign. And our ears were free in the same way that our thought was free – to pursue the narrow confines normally available compared with the scope of the rich, but pursued in such an unthreatened and openly debated manner that an arrival from another world, like Varèse, wasn’t any kind of problem. It arrived, and you gave it ear. If you can listen to Varèse now without experiencing repulsion, you’re assumed to be a member of some élite force of revolutionary warriors. It was a form of innocence.
Poetry moved to a central position when I was about 17, though I don’t know exactly how it happened. It was rather suddenly there, at the focus of hope for the future. What did I know about it, how did I find out what it might be? School got us as far as Eliot and omitted almost everybody, as academics have continued to ever since. Things learned at the ages of ten to twelve left a deeper impression: Masefield, Belloc, Davies, Stevenson... songs by Vaughan Williams and others. The open road, the steady trade winds blowing, do you remember an inn, Miranda, with fireflies, I must down to the sea again, the apple-tree doth lean down low... and all that. For modernity, or as much as we needed of it, we had a stronger and more generous informant than the partialising edicts of professional critics and self-advancing poets; it was called second-hand bookshops. Does anyone remember them? Stockport was obviously not the artistic and intellectual centre of anything, but it had a big second-hand bookshop called the Garrick, occupying a floor of a former mill or warehouse building, a strange space with irregularly shaped wooden-floored rooms on different levels. A lot of talking went on there. The man usually in charge, a small man with big glasses, enormous nose and a thick local accent, had strong opinions on literary merit and would recommend and disrecommend with conviction. If you took a late Henry James novel up to the counter he would sniff and say quite emphatically, “Ay, yes, late James – the great pretender.” But he had no strong opinions on poetry, perhaps fortunately. Before I went to university, with cash set aside from a modest weekly pocket-money, I was able to get the basis of a contemporary poetry collection together from the Garrick, plus later the Manchester shops and an open-air book market there, with careful use of new bookshops for things I knew I wanted which failed to crop up second-hand. Thus easily, straight off the shelf: Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Day Lewis, Spender, Sitwell, Owen, Graves, Masefield, Sassoon, Dylan Thomas, Housman, Frost, Crane, Stevens (I got my Collected Stevens for two shillings from a sale in the basement of Boots the Chemist in Manchester). Pound was more difficult, I had to put in a special order. Ulysses was bought, with much trepidation and fear of detection, from a porn bookshop next-door to Manchester Cathedral. Also Lorca, Rilke, Mayakovsky, Pasternak... but not many translated, and not so many Americans, our culture was more native, without being in any way regional.
For current poetry, which meant the 1940s, there were no instructions to follow, no propaganda. There were no big poetry prizes or National Poetry Days or any other marketing campaigns to tell you what you had to buy, and no poetry festivals to back up the publicity, and no poets going around doing stand-up promotional tours. And we didn’t have people shouting at us at us about what we must under no account buy or read or have anything to do with. The most we had were book reviews, which were expected to argue cogently and remain civilised, and which I rarely saw anyway. My method was to take a book from the shelf, open it, read a poem, if not repelled read another poem, and if still not repelled, buy it. Thus I collected, for a few pence each, books by such poets as Nicholas Moore, W.S. Graham, Sidney Keyes, Wrey Gardiner, Henry Treece, Alun Lewis, Lawrence Durrell, Rayner Heppenstall, Ruthven Todd, H.D., many more. Such books had not yet been withdrawn into a de luxe market called “First Editions” by which the dust-jacket was worth ten times the book, and monstrous prices were transmitted electronically to every back-street bookshop in the land. We also shared our finds with each other and discussed them – schoolboys this is, schoolboys meeting together in the evenings at home or in pubs. This we did many times at The Swan in Kettleshulme on Truman’s mild, and drove back to Stockport after closing time illegally on winding roads through the foothills.
There was no reason to believe, from outside comment received or from what was in the books, that some of these poets were in violent conflict with each other. The Cambridge academics hadn’t yet made partisan intervention in the production and reception of new poetry, or if they had the noise hadn’t reached Stockport. The first I remember of that kind of thing was Donald Davie on the radio about 1960 blasting Ginsberg, which quite shocked me. The destruction of most 1940s poetry careers by the 1950s poetry police was a thing we knew nothing about; we could take seriously Thomas, Moore, New Apocalypse, anything we liked, without feeling we were violating national virginity. And, interestingly, what we were collecting as new poetry was about ten years old, because we relied so much on the second-hand market, and this is perhaps a quite healthy situation. The roaring and the clearances of its production were over – those noises young poets and others so often have to make to clear a space for themselves, the methodical trashing whether from left or right, the evangelical missionaries setting up instant canons. What we had in our hands was the product, for what it was worth. This included, as I remember, Ted Hughes’ first book (1957) as the forward edge of our modernity. It seemed quite in accord with what we were already reading, or had read (the open road etcetera). Larkin never happened in Stockport, I don’t know why (unless it was that I read a poem and put the book back on the shelf).
Of course poetry wars had been going on all century but they didn’t concern us. What we entered was a landscape, of which in retrospect the ups and downs, hardness and softness, bleakness and pastoral, of the Peak District were a figure. Nobody was standing in the middle of Edale declaring the top of Kinder Scout to be difficult or obscure or undemocratic (though difficult it certainly was). I particularly remember “Landscape”, a drawing or etching by Lucian Freud, opposite page 60 of Atlantic Anthology (1945) (another Garrick find, in fact there were two copies there) as seeming to signal what there was to look forward to, since there was something very slightly and delicately unreal about it, and it was an opening-out which was also incisive.
In this pursuit as in many others, everything was open to us; we supplied the constraints ourselves. The way was clear and straight; we supplied the torsions ourselves.
anyway was it, that was the way in. Whatever happened next, which was
mostly division confusion and coercion, poetry was established in its
place, somehow, out of all that jumble and a lot more – out of the
generational tensions, the pull of the past against all the post-war
ambitions of the families, the drive to exceptionality, the tension
between a northern superstition that says “Here we call a spade a
spade”, and literary mystification... And it happened before there
was access to the American poets who opened up new avenues in the
1960s. Possibly the particular interpretation of poetry I was drawn
towards involved the need to multiply the perceiving self, to no
longer be the one thing in one place I had been led to think I was,
however variegated and contradictory the place was. But I have come
to think that the equanimity which distinguished that early episode,
depending on a sense of an entire, intact and expansive culture, is
still there, if you can reach it, and still a creative incentive.
Innovative too, if you need that. It would be a matter of inhabiting,
in the work, where you actually are.
This is an extended version of a text published in the anthology Cusp edited by Geraldine Monk, Shearsman Books 2012, under the title “Whenceforth”.
In The Day’s Final Balance see “St Alban’s” on childhood as a kind of expanding island with borders which become prophetically bloody, and “Manchester” for the department store episode with further evidence of high culture in unlikely places.
The word commonality occurs several times above. The OED insists that there is no such word, and I thus dutifully changed it to commonalty, which does exist. But commonalty doesn’t actually indicate what I meant. Commonalty refers to a commonwealth or the whole of some distinct grouping or association, or it means the “common people”, the ordinary ones. I meant something more like: your participation in the whole of what you have in common, the where and when of your occurrence. I then came across the word commonality used seriously by ethnomusicologists and folklore scholars, to mean something very like that, and so I restored it. Commonality as I understand it is opposed only to exceptionality, not to individuality.