The news appeared online mid-morning, catalyst for change, and like fire or flood it spread across the office. We sat dazed at our desks, searching for words or ways of understanding. After an hour or more of silence we left our workstations, making sure to turn off all the lights.
Days later I heard that in almost every school across the land classrooms emptied when teachers broke the news, and the kids held hands in circles rippling with tears. Factories halted production; mushrooms and strawberries were left to go round and round on belts, plastic punnets stood empty. And pilots quit their cockpits, refused to fly again; that was the start of the Heathrow Nature Reserve.
By noon all cars had been abandoned, most have been left to rust where they stood; strange totems from the past. And as I walked the six miles home I passed people who needed to talk or share their thoughts; some just needed a hug.
And on that night, it’s said, fireflies across the globe turned out their lights, while howler monkeys howled for hours and in the Congo gorillas sat and reminisced.
That day has turned into a decade. We still dream of his voice echoing across the blue planet.
Yes, Elton John comes from Pinner, but Michael Rosen is also one of the best known people to have grown up here, and he is now a patron of the Heath Robinson Museum. The museum honours the artist and illustrator, who was a Pinner resident for a number of years. I was delighted then, to learn that those who run the museum were sending Michael Rosen a copy of And The House Watches On , as he makes his recovery from Covid19. I do hope he liked it, and that it had the cheering effect hoped for.
And The House Watches On, the book Charlotte Harker and I produced, has been very well received, and that’s lovely. However, the publication and any real ability to gain traction was hit by the lockdown – the book was published almost exactly as the situation became critical and then things closed. Ah well… We had to cancel (hopefully just postpone) our launch/reading at West House, the focus of the book. Our wonderful local bookshop, Brook’s, had to close of course, and we would have read there. The Heath Robinson Museum had to close and that was a shame because the book celebrates the Museum and Heath Robinson himself, and the launch/reading was to encompass the building.
Thankfully we are slowly moving back to some normality – the book is available to buy in Brook’s and also the Heath Robinson Museum.
The park itself, Pinner Memorial Park, where West House stands, was clearly something of a lifeline for people during the lockdown – I think we were all reminded of how vital our parks and open spaces are. West House, as the book documents, has seen so much during its lifetime, but this year added another chapter, or rather poem, to its story of the role played within the community. Now I wonder if I should add another piece to mark this period – but perhaps that is for the second print-run!
I thought it was time to share some of the comments people have kindly expressed about And The House Watches On – and there are links to two reviews we received in poetry magazines.
What Readers Say …
GB Clarkson : I delight at the actual finished product, which is indeed exquisite. Yes I love the landscape – house-shaped – format and production.
It’s such a gorgeous, calming, book, I love its shape production as well as the unique conversation going on between the images and written words, past and present, high fortunes and low. A fine landscape pamphlet of 10 poems.
Ruth McNeill : I thought it was lovely – understated, gentle, sad in parts and uplifting at the end. Beautifully drawn and appropriate pictures with the poems, Charlotte, altogether delightful.
Anthony Pinching : This is a delightful book, which is magical and an ideal blend of words and drawings, capturing the past and the present of West House, and its people. I have thoroughly enjoyed it and will return to it regularly.I have no doubt that when WHRM re-opens there will be lots of interest.In the meantime, this is a lovely way of re-thinking our sense of that place
Beverly Peter : The poems and drawings are absolutely excellent .
Clearly this is a strange time (March, 2020), but a couple of positive things have been going on – the chief of which is the arrival of my new book, And The House Watches On.
There is a page for the book where you can read a little more – but essentially it’s the lives, real and imagined, that have passed through West House in Pinner, Middlesex (on the Met line) over the last two hundred years. The book contains poetry by me and original illustrations by Charlotte Harker. We had a plan to read and launch at the Heath Robinson Museum which is situated where the book is based, but that has been put on hold. I think it’s actually appropriate in some ways, because the book demonstrates how the house and society has changed and adapted, through two world wars most notably, and so Covid19, whilst an ugly chapter in our history, is not going to deter the house and its local community from getting on with things, indeed And the House Watches On.
I have a poem called The Day David Attenborough Died, and it was the Festival Favourite at last year’s Wells Lit Festival. Well it is now in good company in this anthology, We Are A Many Bodied Singing Thing. This free download promotes the work of Back From the Brink, an organisation protecting and saving endangered species in Britain, run under the umbrella of the RSPB. You can get the download here:
Finally, I sent a poem to a class that I teach at the sudden and strange closure of school a week ago. The poem has ended up getting a mention on BBC Radio London as a kind of good news story amid the gloom, and was taken up by the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA) in their most recent bulletin to schools. The poem is called The Term Ends and is here:
Finally I shall whet your appetite by saying this week I recorded a few poems for an online venture which I’m very happy to be part of. There’s a big reveal of who and what in a few weeks and I gave my word to keep schtum on specifics until then – but it’s a lovely thing and it’ll be worth a bit of your time when it arrives. Will keep you posted.
In a bid to keep the February blues at bay let me post this response from someone who was given The Space Between Us as a present.
I so enjoyed reading The Space Between Us , and will continue to… especially the poems Invisible, The Fish And The Jay, and I’m Not The Only One (in case you’re keeping tabs on which are the popular ones!) I love the way you write about how ordinary life has within it the immense and the existential and I really enjoyed your use of plain language and clear syntax juxtaposed with unexpected images, wonderful metaphors, and polished off with dark uneasy disturbances!
A strange week that demonstrates the truth of Ronan Keating’s assertion that life is a rollercoaster.
I have been working for ages on a book – a chapbook – called And The House Watches On. I thought I had a publisher on board and all was going well – only for the publisher to withdraw support and leave me a little stuck. That was the down. The up was the support I had from those who heard of the situation, offers of support and advice. So, the book will appear, but it is a step by step process.
Further heights were reached with my inclusion among poets who will appear online at https://www.iambapoet.com/ – a fantastic development by Mark Anthony Owen. Plus I have a poem in the forthcoming anthology from the conservation organisation Back From The Brink. More on those as and when …
So … here are some thoughts someone sent to me after the read my collection The SpaceBetween Us – this kind of response makes the effort worthwhile …
I was given The Space Between Us which I so enjoyed reading, and will continue to .. especially the poems Invisible, The Fish And The Jay, and I’m Not The Only One (in case you’re keeping tabs on which are the popular ones!) I love the way you write about how ordinary life has within it the immense and the existential and I really enjoyed your use of plain language and clear syntax juxtaposed with unexpected images, wonderful metaphors, and polished off with dark uneasy disturbances! Hope all’s well with you and yours, and happy new year to you all! Deborah x
This review somehow escaped my full attention when it first appeared on the Sphinx review website – part of Happenstance Press. Here it is – with thanks to Mat Riches who took the time to write this.
Full disclaimer, I went for a lovely couple of pints with Neil after a recent book launch.
It’s always a surprise to find out what you don’t know about people when something hitherto submerged rises to the surface, and what I love most about this pamphlet is what is not said.
Codes of Conduct seethes with the unspoken and held-back emotions. I read it feeling like a viewer to a soap opera (NB: this is a good thing) shouting at the telly to implore someone to tell another person how they really feel.
In ‘Work Experience’ we get a sense of the regret that runs through the book’s central character, Henderson, as he concurs with the young work experience lad, who ‘…makes clear / he does not want to work in an office; / Henderson says he never wanted to either.’
It’s not just Henderson with the unsaid issues; we have Amy from Accounts leaving notes and gifts on his desk.
This cactus may be a little spiky
but it flowers from time to time. xx
Outside the Henderson sequence, we see someone who would ‘…like to lie down on the kitchen floor / and howl like a dog.’ They are unsure how the person they expect to find them — I assume a partner — might react. They second-guess themselves and their partner, hoping it’s the discovery in this situation that allows them to ‘…tell each other / exactly how we feel’.
It’s hard to know if Elder’s real-life work colleagues should be worried. Should they be checking these poems for secret messages? Do they need to be careful what they say in the staff room and round the water cooler? Either way, I’m pleased his ear is attuned to the world of work —and I’m glad to note here that he went on to explore it further in another pamphlet, the Black Engine Light Room publication, Being Present.
I have loved the work of Paul Farley ever since I read his poem ‘The Heron’. Who can deny the opening –
One of the most begrudging avian take-offs is the heron’s fucking hell, all right, all right, I’ll go the garage for your flaming fags
(from the collection Tramp In Flames).
However I am celebrating another poem by Farley today, appropriately titled February 11th, 1963 (the day on which this is posted). Here it is:
11th February 1963
The worst winter for decades. In the freeze some things get lost and I’m not even born, but think until you’re many Februaries deep in thought with me and find London on that day as held inside a glacier; a fissure where two postal districts touch, its people caught mid-floe, at furniture, the contents of their stomachs, a stopped watch. At these pressures the distance has collapsed: the studio clock winds up over Primrose Hill, or the poet and her sleeping children crossed the mile to Abbey Road. This milk bottle might hold what John’ll drink for one last take; that she’ll leave out for when the children wake.
(from the collection ‘The Ice Age’, Paul Farley).
This poem works on the basis of taking two seemingly unconnected events and putting them up against each other to get something new. At a reading I saw Farley give he explained that for him, a poem is a bit like taking two books and leaning them against each other to create something new.
Spoiler alert (turn back now if you want to consider the poem further without my heavy-handed explaining) – What Farley realised one day was that two very significant but contrasting events had taken place on the date February 11th in 1963. One happy event was that The Beatles were in Abbey Road recording their first album, not even two miles away, in Primrose Hill, Sylvia Plath was taking her own life. The poem has the added dimension of being set in the Big Freeze of 1963, apparently the coldest Winter for 200 years.
Perhaps the idea of putting two idea, events or actions against each other is actually what metaphor is. However, more on that would send me down a different path.
I wonder how many other poems there are that take two seemingly unrelated real events and find something new when they are juxtaposed. Any suggestions …?
Here is a link to Paul Farley reading February 11th, 1963 and other poems of his:
Do you remember where you were when you heard that John Lennon, Elvis, Freddie Mercury, Bowie or whoever else you care to name had died? I guess we can can date ourselves by which of those we recall – it’s popular to cite JFK but I don’t go back as far as that!
I recall all of those I listed, but I have a feeling that more recent departures are starting to become just part of the background noise to our rolling timelines and news feeds. Gone are the days when a newsflash would really grip our attention, nowadays we are more likely to see via social media that events are happening. I think that it was whilst casually scrolling through events on my phone that I read of John Hurt’s death. He died on January 27, 2017, the date this is being posted. He was born January 22nd 1940.
I wrote a poem called The Day We Learnt John Hurt Had Died. Whilst writing this piece I identified that somehow his passing felt less dramatic than those mentioned earlier, mixed in with all the inane stuff social media throws up, but a positive aspect was also highlighted. In among people’s reactions to John Hurt’s death were quotations from films and lines for which he is remembered (I used four of them in the poem). So whilst the context, the when and where of receiving news, may start to get fuzzy because of our instant access to news, what we do now have is the ability to make our own personal tributes to those who pass.
So – here’s to John Hurt. A fabulous actor who I felt never quite got the high regard he had earned. Is that because he stayed in film and never did much work in the theatre, I don’t know? What I am sure of is that he made some fabulous films.
My poem – taken from The Space Between Us (Cinnamon Press). See if you can identify the film and television references in the lines delivered by Hurt.
The Day We Learnt John Hurt Had Died
The usual fuzzy head of a Saturday morning, kettle boiling water to a dance, and you checking your phone.
John Hurt has died, and people are posting lines that he said Everyone has been … so terribly kind Christine, you’re like a racehorse Great men are forged in fire.
Later, the sky recreates itself; brackish storm clouds slashed by sunlight turn magenta, the colour of Quentin Crisp’s hair. And you remember – Vroom! Here we go. Let’s become different molecules.
At the turn of the year I read ‘Face It’, Debbie Harry’s autobiography. I enjoyed most of it, the early New York days are colourful (though she clearly held a good deal back), but the second half feels a little tired as chart positions are listed and the flux that surrounded Blondie took hold. Debbie Harry and Blondie have always been on my horizons.
In my poem ‘Filling The Gaps’, which closes my collection The Space Between Us, I recall all kinds of snapshots from childhood. One of those moments concerns the time I had to chose between Blondie and Queen.
My first album involved a lot of agonised soul-searching and indecision. I was only about eight or nine years old. I couldn’t decide between Parallel Lines by Blondie and News of The World by Queen. I’m delighted to say my first album was one of these, both pretty respectable at the time, and still deserving of kudos.
Both had fantastic covers, the Queen LP has that gatefold sci-fi scene with a robot grabbing people, one or two of the band clearly depicted. The Blondie album is clean and glossy with Debbie Harry striking a pose long before any other female singer gave the the instruction to do so. I don’t know what the deciding factor was, but I went home with the Blondie album.
An outtake from the Parallel Lines photoshoot.
Is this exquisite pleasure now lost to the download generation? I recall buying my first single as well as the album – different shops but both strong in my memory. Sadly both places now gone, well the single was from Woolworths and the album from a small independent record shop. Does anyone remember their first download or Amazon delivery?
It’s strange how moments from childhood can lurk at the bottom of the mind, waiting to be dredged up by some chance trigger. The poem ‘Filling The Gaps’ comes from an “I remember …” type exercise where you get into a stream of consciousness and edit later. I was encouraged to try it out having read ‘I Ran All The Way Home’ by Paul Farley (his collection Tramp In Flames). That poem begins “I remember waking up around the time of the moon landings …” When you get going it is surprising how snapshots of memory jump out. The day I bought ‘Parallel Lines’ has always been a strong memory for me, but I did come up with some more obscure moments and I suggest giving it a go and seeing where it leads.
As for the first album – do you remember yours? What was it?
Here are Blondie with a track from Parallel Lines – what a great album it is.
selfie-ready, in a brand new coat, Ellie plans to hammerhead through days; catch currents, slip down corridors, stream past crowds, avoiding any crush. Immune to the pressure of a thousand tons of water she’ll learn to like herself, find the word no, and enjoy the warmth of basking in her own glow.
I hope this poem gives a little pep to the new year, particularly if you are looking for a change in routine. The poem was described as “a dynamic missile of language that drags the reader along behind it” in Andrew McMillan’s adjudicator report on the Ver Prize 2016 – wow, so long ago? The future is passing us by.
Ellie and her friend Tara appear in a sequence of poems that found a home in the chapbook Being Present, published by Black Light Engine Room Press. I have about four copies left if you want to read more.