I’ve been on holiday for the last week in Benidorm with three friends that I run with. Our women’s running holiday is turning into an annual tradition. It feels slightly false to call it a running holiday as 90% of the time we laze about by the pool. However every morning at 7.15 am we put on our running kits and we’re out running by 7.30 am. The staff in the hotel looked very bemused by us going out running each morning, and on the only day when there was actual clouds in the sky and a bit of a breeze, they looked completely confused that we were actually venturing outside.
I’m trying to remember what else we did apart from running and sitting by the pool, but it was one of those weeks that go by very quickly, even though nothing much is happening. We did spend a morning going round the market in Benidorm, and we had a day out to Altea, which was beautiful.
I also read five novels on holiday – some of them came from recommendations from people on Twitter and some are just ones I’ve come across from reading articles. The first one was South of Forgiveness by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger. Stylistically this book was my least favourite to read but as a true story it is a fascinating read. Thordis and Tom are co-authors of the book, although the majority of the book is written by Thordis, diary entries from Tom are included as well. Tom was Thordis’ first boyfriend, and raped her when she was 16. She got in touch with him years later by email to confront him, and eventually they decide to speak face to face. The book is really about that journey, and it is not a comfortable read. It is much easier to think of rapists as being evil, faceless strangers, but the truth is that many women know their attackers. I found the book interesting because it asks questions about why men like Tom behave in that way – questions about entitlement and power, questions about the impact of trauma, and how to move on from trauma and violence.
I then read Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor. This was recommended by Helen Mort, and I knew nothing about it when I downloaded it on my Kindle. After being firstly quite suspicious of the style, I completely fell in love with this novel, and I think it is one that will stay with me for a long time. I don’t know if it is the correct terminology to call it an experimental novel – and that label, I think has negative connotations, but it did feel quite radical and different to me. It explores the impact on a community of the disappearance of a young girl – but the novel is made up of observations of that community. And by community I don’t just mean the humans that made up the town, but the wildlife and the plants and the animals and the river. There would be a couple of sentences about the school caretaker and then a couple of sentences about the foxcubs in the woods, and the leaves on the trees. At first it was strange and distracting, but once I got used to it, it felt like it was this wonderful level field where everything was as important as everything else.
After that I read Who Runs the World? by Virginia Bergin. This came from reading an article about good dystopian novels, and although I enjoyed it, I think it’s a Young Adult novel (or felt like it to me). It’s set in a world where boys don’t exist and women run the world. I finished this in one day – great story, but I felt a bit old for the tone and it’s audience, and it didn’t quite feel believable for me.
My favourite was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This post-apocalyptic novel felt completely believable – a deadly virus wipes out most of the human race. The novel has flashbacks and jumps around in time and I think I’d definitely read this again as I know I’d get even more out of it the second time around. I also liked this novel because despite the collapse of civilisation, one of the characters travelled around with a group of musicians and actors, putting on concerts and plays for the isolated settlements remaining. I like that art and music and literature and drama survived.
The last novel, which I started on holiday and finished today was The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R. Carey. Another post-apocalypse novel – and again, a great story, told from start to finish, no jumping around, no flashbacks and easy to read. So I didn’t read any poetry at all on holiday – I find it impossible to read poetry while lounging on a sun bed. Also my running friends have no interest in poetry whatsoever so there would have been nobody to talk to about any poetry that I read, so I normally just avoid it altogether. I only really read novels whilst I’m on holiday, as basically I have no self control and don’t get anything done once I start a novel. For example, today I was supposed to be catching up with all the emails that have been piling up. Instead, I had to finish The Girl With All The Gifts and then it was the last night of the athletics, and lo and behold I’m writing my blog at 10.30pm at night and I haven’t answered any emails. Whoops.
I’m only home for nine days and then I’m off again to Macedonia to take part in the Struga Poetry Evenings as part of the Versopolis project, so no more novels for me this week – tomorrow morning I’m going to get up early, answer my emails and get organised. I’m hoping I can get a bit of PhD reading done this week as well so I can go off guilt-free to Macedonia.
Today’s Sunday Poem is by Mike Farren, who I met for the first time when I was Poet in Residence at Ilkley Literature Festival a couple of years ago. Mike came along to a workshop and wrote a fantastic poem. I hope he won’t mind me saying this, but he seemed very unconfident and not really aware of what a good writer he was. Anyway, fast forward to 2017 and he has his first pamphlet out with Templar after winning the Templar Quarterly Portfolio Pamphlet Awards with his pamphlet Pierrot and his Mother.
Mike was born in Bradford and works as an editor in academic publishing. His poems have appeared in various journals and anthologies, including The Interpreter’s House, Prole, Ink Sweat and Tears, and Valley Press’s Anthology of Yorkshire Poetry. He lives in Shipley, where he is one of the hosts of the Rhubarb open mic night.
Mike kindly sent me a copy of this pamphlet a while ago, and I’ve really enjoyed reading it. When I was re-reading it again today, I thought it would be appropriate to share his poem ‘York Street Furniture, 1981’, which is one of those rare things, a poem about work, and especially appropriate to share it today as all I’ve done is go on about my holidays!
I love the way the relationship between Colin and the speaker is set up in this first line. We immediately know that Colin is the one with the knowledge, the experience. He knows where to smoke, and he’s also the one who decides when to have a break. The speaker in this first stanza is a passive follower or observer who obviously admires Colin and his ‘long, buff jacket’. Despite this, there is obviously a mis-connection between the two. Buried in line two of the second stanza there is the line ‘We talk, but say nothing’ – they have nothing in common, no shared ground. The speaker is kicked out of the toilet while the foreman goes in, maybe to smoke himself. The difference of the speaker is underlined throughout the poem, but especially in Stanza 2 when we read ‘The fifty quid/a week is college beer money for me -/for him, it’s life-long beer money, perhaps.’ That word ‘perhaps on the end of the line shows that the speaker doesn’t actually know if this is true, and I think this acknowledgement makes the poem much stronger.
The colloquial tone, or register of the poem is established and maintained as well, through the use of the word ‘gasping’ and ‘bog’, and later on with the word ‘quid’ and ‘wagging’, as well as the foreman with his ‘What the fuck?’.
I also like how the first line of the second stanza ‘I don’t, but then he doesn’t even ask’ is slightly ambiguous. I assume that the reference is ‘I don’t smoke’ but it could also mean ‘I don’t have a break’, although we soon realise the speaker is standing around with Colin while he smokes.
The poem reminded me of my first day working behind the bar at Leeds College of Music. There was a small kitchen behind the bar, and at the end of the shift, I was packing away food that hadn’t been used, and thought the manager told me to ‘sling’ the jacket potatoes that had been part-cooked. I chucked about 30 of them in the bin. He’d actually said ‘cling’. He used a few choice swear words as well, just as colourful as the ones in Mike Farren’s poem.
I think the naivety of the speaker – thinking he can stand with the smokers, although he doesn’t smoke, his lack of size or strength ‘Can’t even span/my arms across’ and the self-knowledge of ‘We talk, but say nothing’
This poem has a great circularity to it – we start off at the beginning with breathing in Colin’s smoke and finish with breathing the ‘reasty, hot machine-oil air’. I love poems that capture moments like this – I’m not quite sure why. Maybe because if someone didn’t write a poem about them, these stories of being a worker won’t ever be told, and I think they should be, because they’re not just about work of course. This poem is about work and what work is, but it’s also about being young, and about social class, about ambition and realisations.
If you’d like to buy Mike’s pamphlet, you can get it by going to the Templar Poetry website for the modest sum of £6. Thanks to Mike for letting me use his poem here, and hope you enjoy it!
York Street Furniture, 1981 – Mike Farren
Colin says he’s got to have a break:
he’s gasping, and the bog’s the only place
they let them smoke. He takes the Players pack
out of the pocket of his long, buff jacket.
I don’t, but then he doesn’t even ask.
We talk, but say nothing. The fifty quid
a week is college beer money for me –
for him, it’s life-long beer money, perhaps.
And when the tab’s half-done, the foreman slams
in, takes one look, says, “What the fuck?” and kicks
me out, for wagging off when I don’t smoke.
I’m back to loading king-sized mattresses
myself. I try just one. Can’t even span
my arms across, so I stand and sniff
the reasty, hot machine-oil air, sweetened
by seasoned timber, as it turns to sawdust.