I’m sat in my writing room looking out at darkness once again. That isn’t entirely accurate of course. I can see the edges of the houses whose back gardens lead onto ours. I can make out the shape of a tree in one of the gardens, although our hawthorn tree is invisible. To the right, the lights in a conservatory glow and every now and then, I see a car pass between the gaps in the houses. I know if I opened the window, I would hear nothing until a car made its way up the hill.
I used to live in a street where at night the whole place would come alive. The arguments that had simmered quietly in the daytime would burst out once darkness fell. Once I was woken up by somebody kicking a front door in across the road. Once I was woken up by a fight. Once I was woken up by somebody smashing someone’s car windscreen in. Once a man who lived across the road, who was an alcoholic opened my front door and stumbled in, then stumbled out again.
In my old house, the morning was filled with seagulls crying. We were closer to the sea than we are now, although we couldn’t see it. We lived in an area of Barrow where the terraced houses seemed to make the sky smaller somehow. Up here, at the top of a hill, the sky seems bigger, and the birds that I hear first thing in the morning are the sparrows. I realise I’ve never lived anywhere where there were birds before.
In Birmingham, where I lived for a year, there was the constant hum of a main road outside the front door. There was a garden, but I never ventured into it. In Leeds, the noise outside was of traffic, and a nightclub that held afternoon raves, as well as evening ones. I’ve never lived anywhere so quiet before as here.
Everything links to everything else doesn’t it? Thinking about Leeds, and Birmingham, in the time when I still wanted, more than anything to be a professional trumpet player. It’s no coincidence that this is on my mind this week, as I’ve spent more hours than I have in years playing the trumpet.
I’ve been playing in a production of The Wizard of Oz every night in Ulverston. I started the week in agony – I went to a soul band rehearsal and could hardly play because I had a painful back and neck. After talking to Julie (the sax player) I’ve really been working to try and keep my shoulders relaxed when I’m playing. I’ve literally been forcing my shoulder blades down.
Just this simple act has completely transformed my playing. My lip has lasted for the whole show instead of for 20 minutes. I’ve been playing the high notes and it has felt easier. I’m trying to remember now whether my teacher at music college ever said to put my shoulders down. I can’t remember it if he did. Maybe he said ‘Relax’ without explaining how to do this.
On Saturday I had three gigs – a matinee and evening performance of The Wizard of Oz and half of a soul band gig to do, and my lip held out! Before this little trick of keeping my shoulders down, I’d have been goosed after the first matinee.
Imagine meeting an ex who you loved more than you loved anybody before, but you met at the wrong time, or you were not ready, your head wasn’t right when you met, and the chances, the ones you were given, passed you by, or you did not reach out and take them. Now imagine you meet that ex, but you have got older in the normal course of things, but they have stayed at whatever age they were when you met them. They are unchanged. That is how I feel about playing the trumpet – I start playing again, and all the old ghosts that I didn’t deal with in the past, come back again. I didn’t stop playing because I didn’t love it still, or that I wasn’t good. I stopped playing because I didn’t feel good enough, because I couldn’t handle the feelings it brought up of doubting myself.
As you can probably tell, I’m still working through all of this in my own head. I am really happy to be playing again, and there is some sadness as well that I’ve taken this long to get to this point – it feels like coming full circle in some ways, without even meaning to.
So apart from my epiphany (put your shoulders down) and my trumpet angst, and my joy at the feeling of playing my trumpet every day for the first time in many, many years I’ve had lots of other stuff going on as well. I haven’t done as much running this week because I’ve been busy with other stuff, but I used the opportunity of a low milage week to have a go at Park Run on Saturday and get a new personal best time for 5k of 21.54. I am very chuffed to be under 22 minutes for 5k.
I’ve also had an interesting week poetry wise. I’ve been asked to be the ‘Artist of the Month’ in a local paper ‘Ulverston Life’ so on Monday I went to Ulverston and was interviewed by the lovely Helen Shacklady who has promised to turn my incoherent ramblings into something that is worth reading.
On Wednesday I went to Furness Abbey to record a poem that I’ve been commissioned to write for National Poetry Day by the BBC. The brief was to write a poem in the voice of a landmark. I decided to write a poem in the voice of Furness Abbey, telling its life backwards. If it is good enough for the story of my niece and her first boxing match, (see my first collection if you don’t know what I’m talking about) then it is good enough for Furness Abbey. My interview for this was pretty dire – I forgot to mention anything about my publications which would have made me sound like I knew what I was doing and instead told the journalist about how I started writing poems every time I got dumped. Oh well. It’s too late to worry about that one now as well! The poem will be broadcast on BBC Cumbria on National Poetry Day and apparently there will also be a Facebook video of me walking around the Abbey looking up at the walls. What could possibly go wrong with this? Let’s hope the journalist wasn’t still recording when I did my Kate Bush impression whilst leaping through the Furness Abbey arches…
On Thursday I did my first day of teaching at Manchester Met. I did a five minute talk in the lecture to about 100 students about a poem that I loved, alongside Angelica Michelis and Martin Kratz, the other lecturers on the unit that I’m teaching on, and then I did my first two seminars with my student groups. I was really nervous about the lecture part, but once I got going I was fine, and I really loved the teaching part. There were no problem behaviours to manage. I didn’t have to ask people repeatedly to be quiet. I didn’t have to convince them that my subject was worthwhile and interesting. I didn’t have to bite my tongue and keep my temper. I didn’t need any patience. It was bloody marvellous!
I also managed to get to the library and got out far too many books in one go, but I got a bit over-excited. Tomorrow, I’m going for my Induction Day for my PhD, and I’m hoping this will kickstart me into getting to work, as I don’t feel that I’ve really knuckled down yet. Oh and joy and rapture – I also got my staff card sorted so it is in my actual name rather than my married name.
So, on to today’s Sunday Poem. I hope you’ve managed to read this far. Bob Horne was kind enough to send me his first pamphlet, Knowing My Place, published by Caterpillar Poetry. As well as being a great poet (as you’ll see from the poem) Bob is also a publisher, having set up the small press Calder Valley Poetry at the beginning of 2016. Since then, he has published five pamphlets by writers including John Foggin, Peter Riley, Steve Ely, Mark Hinchliffe and John Duffy, with a pamphlet by Stephanie Bowgett in the pipeline.
I don’t know Bob very well, but when I have met him, the impression I got was one of generosity towards other writers and enthusiasm about poetry. This has been borne out in the brief email exchange we’ve had, where he was very humble about his own work, preferring to talk about his work as a publisher. So it is nice to put the spotlight on Bob’s own poetry for once! Bob did tell me he did a Poetry MA at Huddersfield University in the mid 1990’s but then had a break until three years ago, when he started attending local events at The Albert, Puzzle and other local venues such as Anthony Costello’s Kava Kultura in Todmorden and Keith Hutson’s Square Chapel sessions.
This poem reminded me at first of one of my favourite poems – ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden. It seemed to me as if Bob was tipping his hat to this earlier poem – so I’d be interested to see if he has read the Hayden poem or not! If Bob has read the poem, then I think it is a lovely way of building up the layers of this poem. The similarities between the two poems lie in the physical action of a ‘he’ lighting a fire, and in the use of the word ‘austere’ which seems, in my mind at least, to link them both together. Bob’s poem is much more, I think about the self, and looking back on quite a solitary figure, of looking at a small space, and what happens when you move from the past to the present, from small spaces, to spaces without any boundaries, whereas the Hayden poem explores the relationship between a father and son, and the emotional dynamics of a household.
I love the focused concentration on the physical actions in the poem – there are lots of wonderful details that are very carefully observed: ‘Then, a scratch/ and a bud of flame’. I love both the scratch and the bud of flame.
The title of the poem tells us where we are, and at first there is a narrowness, an inwardness to this poem. The speaker is looking back to a particular season, a particular year, a particular house and room. But by the end of the poem, it completely opens out, both to the wider world: ‘a rush of smoke/slid up the sooty/blackness of the chimney/to vanish in faraway air’ but it also opens out from the past to the present with that wonderful ending with the grown up shadow gazing back.
I do think this last stanza is extraordinary – it is both situated in the past and the present, the statue being the thing that time pivots around. We’ve all been small and had our shadow, larger than ourselves thrown against a wall. But this last stanza could equally be taking place now, in the present moment.
Thanks to Bob for letting me use his poem. I hope you enjoy it!
Living Room – Bob Horne
I remember winter mornings
in nineteen fifty-one,
standing on the corner
of a ragged hearth-rug,
austere light from outside
screened by clothes on the creel.
With a hand-brush’s worn bristles
he swept cold ashes
from under the grate,
shovelled them onto paper
to be parcelled and stuffed
in the dustbin.
Then, a scratch,
and a bud of flame
felt along the ends
of knots of newsprint.
As they browned and flaked,
fire flowed through a stack
of sticks and coal from the cellar,
a rush of smoke
slid up the sooty
blackness of the chimney
to vanish in faraway air.
I turned to look across the room,
the heat at my back.
Still, in the middle
of a flickering wall,
my grown-up shadow
gazed back at me.