By Tom Kelly

Red Squirrel Press.  76 pages. £10.00. ISBN 978-1-910437-91-9

Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh

Tom Kelly writes poems that are straightforward and about the people and the places he’s known all his life. The North-East is his “small patch” and its history and traditions loom large in just about everything he writes. If the term “regional writer” means anything it certainly applies to a writer like Kelly. You can see and smell and hear both the past and the present as you read the short, jabbing lines with their penny-plain words:

     You talked as if giving a speech,
     clear as a bell, loud,
     I was young. Intimidated,
     didn’t feel your warmth,
     lost in a lifetime of meetings in church-halls and
     Parliament. It was not love
     until you spoke of Jarrow in the 30’s,
     deprivation you wished you could have eaten.

That name Jarrow cuts through the book. It was where Kelly was born and grew up, with tales of its ship-building traditions all around him, along with memories of the Jarrow Crusade when two hundred unemployed men marched to London to present a petition that was then ignored. The 1930s were years of want and of visits to the pawnshops, of the Means Test and families split apart because if someone in the house earned anything the relief paid to the out-of-work head of the family would be cut. Austerity wasn’t a word coined recently. And one old man remembers: “For the people of Jarrow, the Means Test was a soul destroyer. Men were not allowed to stand at street-corners. If you did the police would keep you moving on. The town was like a police state”.

The Second World War provided a respite. The shipyards were busy again, and it continued that way for a time. But it wasn’t long before the work began to dry up, and the shipyards closed. Jarrow and other towns were badly affected. Communities dependant on work that was both cursed and shared, began to fall apart:

     Geordie’s on a train, Newcastle King’s Cross
     bag of dirty clothes, head battered with loss.
     Wife’s on the ran-tan and hitting the drink         
     it could be another man he starts to think.

Kelly also writes poems about his childhood, his Irish roots, local characters, his parents, and there’s a particularly poignant and powerful poem about a brother who died relatively young.

I don’t suppose this is the sort of poetry that will win the kind pf prizes that people present to each other at prestigious meetings in the metropolis. It’s too down-to-earth, and doesn’t pretend to offer any supposed great ideas for the reader to ponder over. It records the poet’s world, his reflections and experiences, in a direct fashion. An environment of cold bedrooms, outside lavatories, and bitter memories probably wouldn’t appeal to those who think that poems should be like puzzles, or should look deep into the mind of the poet.  But if we open our eyes to see what is in front of them, there is a world, and a history, out there that requires our attention.  Tom Kelly is aware of it.