Friday, 11 October 2013

Simon Says: 'Her People' for 1st prize

Simon Armitage is the handsome one on the right.
Ee, I'm right chuffed. To my surprise, I won 1st Prize in the Nantwich Words & Music Festival poetry competition.

I was even more chuffed that I won with Simon Armitage as the judge. It's not everyday that I get a poem selected for a prize by one of the UK's leading poets.

Unlike my good friend Roger Elkin, I don't have a track record on poetry prizes. Roger wins them all the time. I was a runner up in the first Stafford Poetry Competition in 2009 judged by Michael Hulse and have twice been among the winners of the regular competitions in Poetry News. But this was a first for me - getting the first prize. Simon kindly signed the poem and drew a 1st Prize rosette on it - which was a nice touch.

I always enjoy hearing Simon read. I've heard him about four times now and I once even saw his band, The Scaremongers, perform in a Huddersfield pub. I've chatted to him a few times about bands and my native South Wales, about book-signings and about his harrowingly moving Radio 4 piece Black Roses about the killing of the Goth teenager, Sophie Lancaster. On that occasion he modestly gave the credit for the impact to Sophie's mum for her incredibly brave and moving account. I doubt if Simon remembers those conversations, he must have thousands along similar lines. I only hope he doesn't think he's got some wierd little Welshman stalking him around gigs in the North of England ...

So here's the winning poem, Her People. It's about my Grandad's family on my mother's side and begins and ends with my Great Aunt Lil' sat at the piano. The title comes from the name of a classic memoir by Kathleen Dayus, Her People: Memoirs of an Edwardian Childhood. It won an autobiographical award in 1982 and became something of a classic sociological text. Dayus died a few days short of her 100th birthday, the age Great Aunt Lil' reached, 'the first and last of twelve.'

Dayus's book was all about her childhood in Hockley, Birmingham, the same area where my Grandad, one of those 12, grew up. He was born in 1912 so the period covered by the poem is slightly later than the Edwardian Birmingham depicted in Dayus's book, but the conditions were the same.

It was the only book he ever read. "Our Else gave it to me," he told us, "'Here, our Jack, read this.' You know I'm not one for books and reading but because it was our Else, I gave it a go. I could not put it down." He handed it to us as if it were a sacred text. "Here, read it. Every word in that book is true ..."

He's the Jack I've mentioned in the poem. It covers the period from after the First World War to the 1960s when we used to visit our Birmingham relatives as kids. His father was living in a high-rise then, all the surrounding streets had been bulldozed, with just the pubs remaining at the gable ends. He peered at us and prised two tanners (sixpences) out of a tin box. I remember my Grandad telling me how he'd filched the coppers and tanners that his eldest sister Lil had been saving for piano lessons and spent them down the pub. She used to play for coppers and everyone said she'd have been quite accomplished if she'd ever been trained.

Johnny ('Jack') Tonks, my Grandad, was a strict tee-totaller. Not for religious reasons but because he'd seen the effect of booze on the family's meagre income. They lived in a two-up/two-down with an outside loo and a tiny yard where his father nurtured rhubarb with the pee he fermented in a tin pail.

I never knew my Great Grandmother, but she was a saint by all accounts. She had to be, the life she had. Some of her 12 children died fairly young and two had severe disabilities. I'll never forget my Great Aunt Nell. She was said to have the most severe case of cerebral palsy in the Midlands. When I knew her she was couch-bound and corkscrewed around so that her head was facing over her back. She'd have a towel to catch the spittle the constantly dribbled down her cheek. She'd literally squeal with delight when we visited and press tanners into our palms. Poor Nelly. Bright as a button with a dry sense of humour - they all had that - and a thing for Bing Crosby. The Prayer Book she gave us when we emigrated to Australia as £10 Poms remains one of my treasured possessions.

I didn't get to her funeral but my Mum still fills up talking about it now. It was the 1980s and the surviving Tonks 'girls' gathered around the graveside to pray - she'd been buried alongside my Great-Gran. My Mum says it was like a collective electric charge of faith mingled with grief. There was love there so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Sometimes, I'm not sure about this poem. But if it conveys that much, it'll be worth more than any prize.


She practices her scales, feels the promise
beneath her hollow palms, how it rises
from within the shuttered case -
Ragtime, Rachmaninov, Clair de Lune.

As the bar fills with hubbub, boots and smoke
she rolls out the barrel, follows the van,
clings to an old rugged cross till closing time.

She stores their tossed coins in a jar,
the way her father stands his stale
and frothy piss in a bucket in the yard.

When the factory whistle melts the men
into side-alleys, back-to-backs,
he sends their Jack to fetch his snap
to him in the snug, only brings his slow
unsteady stomp homeward after dark.

When the coppers rise and reach the neck
he turns their silver promise into a bucketful
of froth, pours it on the rhubarb out the back.

Each week they help their mother
fold their Nelly into a leather chair,
wheel her where nurses pummel
her fixed limbs, hoist her into harness
to stretch and tune her straight.

We want redemption. And if it's found
in suffering it's not just Nell but Elsie,
abandoned by her husband in the war,
or Min's own Dicky Dale forked on crutches
since a football kick connected with his spine,
Olive lost to kidneys at the age of thirty-eight,
Stanley taken from them at sixteen.

If time's the healer, hear how the old man prised
two tanners for us from a tin box, how the nurses
left Nell to nature with nothing but love to tend her.

Listen to her laughter as they fill kettles for her bath -
Dot' and Hilda, Harry, Beat'. See the vicar bring her Jesus
once a week. And if faith, let's end this litany where it began,
with Lil', the first and last of twelve, closing the lid gently
on her own century, its sounds and faces, their names.

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