Thursday, 15 May 2008

Life Class

One year or so ago, I was walking on Pendle Hill in Lancashire and, for no preconceived reason, wrote a dozen lines describing a boyhood walk with a friend. They were unsatisatisfactory in such a way that they could not be corrected nor condensed, but required to be expanded. I did so, and have continued so far for 140 pages ... making drawings (the ones of a vigin confronting crows that appear elsewhere in this blog) for certain later sections of the poem. Here are the opening lines.


Extracts of Life Class have appeared in The London Magazine (February/March 2007), in Ambit, and in Tears In The Fence 47 (winter 2007).
Two sections (with drawings) were published as Two Marriages by Shoestring Press, December 2007.


Caring mothers fed us bacon, eggs,
black-puddings, sausages, fried bread;
packed egg sandwiches and thermos flasks
for my friend, whom I shall call Farley, and me :
two youths that thought they had outgrown
such tenderness – of mothers also angry,
quivering without utterance
for what in 1950 they dare not say:
their fear that we were homos, poufters
in too close a friendship
for what might we get up to when
sharing a tent in the probable rain?

Throwing off our “narrow-minded” homes
we met carrying rucksacks, tents
(ex-commando, weighed a ton)
tin cups, primus, maps, compass,
ironed pyjamas, waterproof trousers,
sketchbooks, gouache, brushes,
by the Regal Cinema.
Thumbs raised,
sometimes a van, once a Jaguar,
once crammed with sheep intended for slaughter,
once with a vicar who “believed” in youth,
especially art-students such as us
awed like him by Rembrandt and Bach,
once with a toff in an open car, (girls waved
at traffic lights along the A6),
once with a dippy old dear who invited us
up for the night (we were not taken in) -
all of them loners and talkers
but sometimes for an hour left soaking
at a roundabout was our luck of the draw
for lifts to Wales, down London way,
Cornwall, Scotland, or up The Lakes.
As on the occasion that I recall.

Wastwater was a blue and ice-eyed fiord
walled with crimson and orange bracken;
Buttermere bore a shadow sketched
as its edge cut the bright water.
At dusk watched gnats sift through their dances,
and from a tent door, the sun
turn leaves into seeming a bright flock of birds
nervously twitching with light. Slept under canvas until,
at four, the mistress or the master colourist
spread an explosive dawn upon the Fell.

In hazel woods at Seatoller came the rain
its music on leaves and on taut canvas
its scents breathing from warmed grass
as, camping by a smoky fire
feeding it wet sticks of hazel and sycamore,
drying clothes soaked on Honister Pass
we fried bacon, black puddings, eggs,
sausages, bread, ate half-warmed beans,
half-cold porridge tainted with the smoke
that circled and smarted.

We, the painterly kings of feeling
caught in threads and tangles of ideals
could spend all day without speaking
not moving either, but stare
or point, we were so intimate.
Sometimes we walked the night until moon fall.
Once came upon Dove Cottage from the Fell.
(We cold, hungry walkers could have been
tramps the Wordsworths remarked on more than once.)
Camped that night trespassing by the Lake.
Imagined the calm of poets’ discussions,
the quiet of their reading, the quick
of their walks’ alert epiphanies,
their sharing that was an awed silence
shared, and then their garrulous,
hushed indicators - “Look! - Look there!”

Sometimes, in friendship by our haven’s fire
or pitching tent at the fragrant side
of a wood at dusk
(wind’s reminder in the tops of trees)
we could perhaps have touched … but didn’t.
Just listened. And if we spoke it was no more
than with agreeable murmurs while we heard
day birds settling, night birds coming out
among the hunting animals, we so motionless
that none took notice - not as we did of each other.

And once we met a fox. A fox arrested in the leafed light
of the forest - not exactly as if visited
by death (although a cursory glance might miss
the super-living tension of its stillness).
Then it fled, silent as a brown light.

Maybe it was simply boyhood
that found us strange and unexpected
paths to follow and a sense of frontier;
over the hills, a paradise
beyond our urban claustrophobia,
where instinct took us?
Instinct that found
farm-widows bringing to our tent their home-baked pies:
older women, with guile and need,
with promises and dangerous smiles
hesitating to tell their stories,
persuading us to stay - young, healthy boys -
and work (inherit?) their farms
down flower-scented lanes.
An England that Keats and Turner would recognise
where today would be
a hedgeless, tarmac-ed way
and someone defensive, private.
Places of animals and of musical birds:
time and again in Shropshire and in Wales
the eternal reliable song that did not ease
their trapped, those hinted at, adult griefs.

Or is this premature oldman-speak;
disturbed ruminations
in the soft shroud of sadness, but no thorns
perceived after lunch and wine?
One cat-napping with his aches to wake him,
his world reduced to the comforting moon
of a lamp on a bedside table,
waking to trace the lines of his stray thoughts?
One who – as, before dark comes,
when birds and animals peck and scratch for food –
picks his way late for spiritual sustenance,
in hope that there will be built in the mind
a still pillar, carved out of the flux?

Thumbs up again down the A6
leaving blisters of fires by lakes and woods,
heat-cracked rings of stones, charred logs
(and holes in a bowling-green once
after we had pitched tent in the dark
of Borrowdale when tumbling off Scafell).
Came back with wet, wool socks,
boots holding water, stained maps,
broken thermos, unwashed pans
for mothers honoured to wash them
and parted for our different homes.

I’ve read that, to experience hell,
children have had their fingers held in flame
for a second and told to imagine eternity.
Maybe everlasting joy is the same?
Is love’s abyss of eternal time
in moments hung on such meetings.
It would be always thus, we thought,
or, because we were so wise, would just get better
and better, until the end of time...........