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ISSUE 16

IVOR GURNEY by John Lucas

Northcote House, Plymbridge House, Estover, Plymouth PL67PY. ISBN 0-7463-0887-6.  

Ivor Gurney is hardly an unknown poet but he is significantly neglected. There is only one biography and it's out of date. It's possible to read English literature in a British university and not necessarily encounter his work in studying twentieth century English poetry. Surely John Lucas is right that Gurney is the best of the 1914-1918 War Poets and one of the finest poets of the twentieth century? But of course, Gurney was mad. That mania for categorization, the need to have people safely slotted into some convenient mental category and the sniffy sense of superiority which often accompanies dismissal of the so-called mad, goes some way to account for the failure to grant Gurney his rightful place in English poetry. This is not the place to explore the history of psychiatry, but to attribute madness as some final definition to a mind as lucid and creative as Gurney's smacks more of a fear of demons than of scientific accuracy or genuine care for a troubled selfhood. That Gurney was troubled and exhibited erratic and disturbing behaviour is beyond question. But his odd behaviour is a laughable triviality compared to the gross lunacy of the politicians and generals who sent men to slaughter in the useless conflict which did so much, in all probability, to unhinge Gurney's mind. What sensitive, imaginative person would not have been unhinged by the barbarity of trench warfare? The deep psychic hurt suffered by so many men in the First World War is proof not of their mental debility but of their humanity. The calculating betrayal of those men's hopes by a ruthless political and economic elite bears all the hallmarks of psycopathy.

Gurney was an ordinary soldier. He is a war poet in the sense that his serious attempts at poetry began after he had signed up. It's true also that everything he subsequently wrote was, in some way, touched by the experience of war. He is a past, therefore, of the utmost seriousness. He is most definitely not a stylist in search of a subject. His style grows from his subject matter and his subject matter goes to the heart of both the human condition and human history. Initially influenced by Rupert Brooke, Gurney quickly got beyond his nostalgic quaintness. Edward Thomas became a more enduring influence. But Gurney is an original. No-one ever wrote quite like him. Though he penned some beautiful lyrics (he was of course a-musician before he was a poet and a composer, so those able to make informed judgments claim, of real merit) his work is never facile. Its characteristics are profundity, density and concentration. He began fairly conventionally, Lucas argues, his first collection Severn and Somme being unremarkable among war poetry. Crucially it embraces the notion of war as heroic, an adventure, and the Great War specifically as an adventure in defence of English traditions and values. Yet even here, and even in poems far from fully realised, Gurney is beginning to introduce that note of questioning and opposition which will be elaborated into a courageous music of defiance. This along with an improved technical mastery made his second collection War's Embers a considerable advance. It's in reference to this collection that Lucas points out one essential feature of Gurney's work which distinguishes him from other War Poets:" his belief in what he will later call the cleanness of common things'". This brings to mind Kavanagh's famous remark that" The parochial mentality.... is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish." Gurney's keeping faith with the parochial is akin to his affection for and admiration of the soldiers with whom he served. Chatter, camaraderie, easy-going ways, a rejection of that false politeness of the English upper classes behind which they conceal the viciousness of their motives, these were throngs Gurney cherished as he began to reflect first on the uselessness of the Great War and later on the rank betrayal of the men who had fought it. Gurney was to become an enemy of "politeness". Not of simple courtesy, of course, but of that sniffy, stiff, buttoned-up, cold, preserving-the-old-civilities attitude so prevalent after the First World War and which was essentially an expression of class snobbery on the one hand and a hypocritical denial of the brutality of English society on the other.

Lucas claims that he will make a case in his book for Gurney to be considered as valid a post-war poet as Eliot. Does he succeed? Part of the difficulty is that the cultural canonization of Eliot is so complete that to compare him to his contemporaries is viewed rather like comparing god to mere bishops. Further, there is no doubt about Eliot's extraordinary sensitivity to the plasticity and musicality of language. Even if you don't understand a thing he's getting at, if you have an ear, Eliot's poetry sings. Nevertheless, Lucas establishes a sound critical case for the outstanding originality, formal accomplishment and intellectual and moral sophistication of Gurney's work which makes it difficult to see him as anything other than a poet of the first rank. His differs from Eliot, obviously, in one crucial respect: Eliot hates and fears democracy, the contagion of the mob, the consequences of educating the masses and looks to tradition to defend us from the encroaching hordes; Gurney, on the other hand, loves the common folk and their easy ways, hates the pusillanimity of providential middle-class life, is outraged at the way honest work has become almost impossible and reviles the traditions which hold people in thrall to empty authority, vicious money-grubbers and unprincipled politicians. Might it not be the case that Eliot's standing is so automatically taken to be the higher because his outlook corresponds so neatly with the needs of the rich and powerful?

If Gurney is above all a War Poet, he is a poet of the war which still haunts all our lives. The men who came back from the trenches said little, were prone to outbursts of temper and sometimes irrational violence, if violence can ever be anything else. Ted Hughes was deeply marked by his father's unfathomable silence about the war. The children born in the twenties couldn't fail to be influenced by this and by that blanket politeness, handed down from on high, beneath which the horror was supposed to be concealed. Their children in turn, born in the late forties or early fifties, must have absorbed something of what had touched their parents. The First World War still haunts us too because the attitudes which sent men to die for nothing and then allowed them to come home to poor housing, poverty, unemployment, sodal insecurity, little or no education for their children remain entrenched in British life. Generals fear mutiny, the rich and powerful fear democracy. We have a voting system but most of our institutions are strictly hierarchical and to talk of democracy in the workplace is to be thought of as a dangerous revolutionary, perhaps even mad, like Gurney. Just as the hopes of the returning soldiers were betrayed, so the hopes of millions have been betrayed by a political class which puts the values of the entertainment industry before the more demanding values of justice and democracy. This is what makes Gurney still so vital a poet. In an age in which poetry is riddled by doubt over its raison d'etre, where style comes first and subject matter is pursued like a rabbit in a meadow, Gurney is an example of that principle upheld by Thoreau: writing must flow from a confrontation with life's great questions. Our age confuses the great questions with facile solutions and so flees the confrontation. Gurney's poetry is entirely free of that self-regarding look-at-me-ism which lurks just beneath the surface of so much contemporary poetry and which is the inevitable concomitant of the West's retreat from demanding ideals (ideals, not dogma) into a self-flattering obsession with the personal. Yet, as Simone Well pointed out, the impersonal alone is sacred. It is precisely Weil's famous question: why, when you see a man walking down the street, is it wrong to gouge out his eyes? that haunts Gurney's poetry. It is the question of what constitutes human worth. The answer , of course, is nothing personal. It's wrong to kill a man not because he's tall, or rich, or clever, or good-looking, or charming, or powerful, or witty, or educated, or white. It's wrong because he's human. Our humanity is impersonal and we deny it in others when we foolishly believe that our human worth inheres in our personal attributes. Gurney understood that the men alongside whom he fought were being sacrificed to exactly such foolishness. The "bosses war" was fought to prove that the rich enjoy greater human worth than the rest, who, therefore, are expendable. The war over, the illusion remained and remains: We still live in a society which attempts to distribute human worth like washing machines or mobile phones. It is this great lie of capitalism, that your worth to the system is your worth as a human being, which appalled and mortified Gurney. It is the lie which, in many ways and with great beauty and insight, he comes back to again and again.

John Lucas in this short but excellent study goes to the heart of Gurney's achievement. Lucas is one of our very best critics and here he is at the top of his form: erudite, thorough, persuasive, dear-sighted, sensitive, honest and brilliantly insightful into the way Gurney's poetry works. His style is easy to read but never flattering or patronizing. His allusions those of a highly cultured mind. The book is a joy in itself and it sends you back to the poetry with both renewed enthusiasm and greater understanding. It may also engender a desire to reread some of Lucas's previous marvelous work: The Radical Twenties, John Clare, his excellent edition of Crabbe.

 

STAYING ALIVE: Real poems for unreal times.

Edited by Neil Astley. Bloodaxe 10.95. ISBN 1-85224-588-3.  

Anthologies are much to be praised. They have the disadvantage of providing an easy route for the lazy but the far greater advantage of providing an entry for the uninitiated and a ready store for the experienced. For the old hands, those who have been wearing out their eyes with poetry for decades, there will be few new names here. All the same, this is a worthwhile book to have unless you've been lucky enough to assemble a full personal library of Individual collections from the last hundred years. For the new reader, there is enough here to give a dear sense of the kind of poetry the twentieth century produced, the names of some of its major practitioners, a variety of subject matter, form and voice, and a range of accomplishment from the truly great to the acceptably competent. The book is prefaced by an introduction from Astley, has a useful glossary of poetic terms, an informative few pages on how poetry is put together, a comprehensive and accurate index of authors and a set of acknowledgements which will permit the more curious reader to search out collections by the authors who seize them. Astley has done a thorough, erudite and imaginative job. All young poetry enthusiasts should devour this book. Greybeards should have it to search out those poems that are slipping from their memory in the manner so exquisitely teased out in Billy Collins1 poem Forgetfulness, gladly inducted here.

Anthologies always raise the issue of ins and outs. Might it not be thought wise to include in a collection one of whose aims seems to be to provide an overview of the last century's work, something by Apollinaire? Surely one of the twentieth century's greatest and most influential poets. A new reader wouldn't know either that D.H.Lawrence wrote poetry. Nor would they encounter William Carlos Williams or Ferlinghetti. They wouldn't discover the undersung genius of Ivor Gurney nor know that Louis Aragon was a towering figure in French poetry.

They wouldn't meet the delights of Paul Fort or the lovely wit and childlike joy of Prevert, They wouldn't make the acquaintance of Edwin Brock ( perhaps there are as many ways to forget a poet as there are to kill a man, certainly to place him at the beginning of the twenty-first century and leave him there would probably suffice ). They wouldn't know Benn or Trakl or the street talk of Kenneth Fearing. But this descends into mere churlishness. Every editor must take a stance according to his or her lights. Astley has taken his. Anthologies are never definitive. If they define their editor's perspective, they have done all they can.

A collection as rich as this has to provide the reader some orientation. Divided into thematic sections the reader is prevented from being adrift in an ocean of poetry. The sections' themes are perfectly sensible and there is something psychologically satisfying about being able to reach down a poem about childhood or death or love. Perhaps, however, such themed sections suggest that poets go in search of subject matter. The greatest literature or even literature which is not great but which is full of life and interest, doesn't do this, of course. An interesting literature has the feel of inevitability about it. Where does that come from if not from what Flaubert expressed so stringently when he wrote: You do not choose your subjects, you submit to them? As almost all the poems are by writers born in the twentieth century, doesn't that century's history provide what they had to submit to? Of course, writers always return to the same perennial themes: life is defined by mortality in any age and love is love throughout the ages. Yet even death is subject to historical change: it doesn't mean the same to a twenty-first century Darwinian as it did to a tenth century Christian. Through the themed sections then, runs the thread of what the century imposed. The same kind of imposition can be discerned in style. Significant changes in the way poetry is written are rare. They aren't brought about by a self-conscious pursuit of innovation but by a fundamental change in feeling. The cost to a writer of real innovation is very high. It's not accomplished without loneliness and self-doubt and it frequently leads to marginalization. Most of the poets here aren't great innovators. They stay within the relatively safe boundaries established by the great writers who forged the structures which became the stock-in-trade of the century. Most poetry, of course, is always like that, but nonetheless it can still be readable, interesting and memorable.

One of the appendices is Astley's previously mentioned little essay, The Sound Of Poetry. He says all the sensible things about form and free verse, how you can't write the latter if you don't understand the former and so on. And he quotes Glynn Maxwell who says: The problem with most free verse is that it locates wisdom in the self and not in the language." It's an intriguing formulation. Perhaps he's making the same point that John Berger was elucidating when he said you must reach the reader in the work not through it. Writing is simply weak and sloppy otherwise. Perhaps most free verse is weak and sloppy. But the best isn't. Poetry in strict form can be just as disastrous in its refusal to make the language work as poetry which improvises like a jazz solo. Truth, of course, does precede language. Meaning precedes language. If it didn't, an ambiguous sentence would be impossible, let alone a sentence with six meanings. Perhaps there's an ancient prejudice that because writers can say what many cant, they can also think and even feel what many can't. Yet that commonplace experience of discovering in a poem a truth you've always known surely scuppers this. Aren't poets simply better at telling us the truths we all know? So where is truth, in the self or in the poem? Or perhaps in the gap between the two?

There is plenty of truth to be discovered in this anthology. Once again, Astley has shown himself to be a force for good in international poetry. He should be lauded, among other things, for having shifted the centre of poetic gravity from London. His publishing house has opened up British poetry to a spirit of generosity which was missing from the cramped and hidebound London publishing circles. Everyone will find their favourite poets and poems in this collection. For this reviewer, the poems by Mirosiav Holub are the most memorable, the ones III go back to most, the ones most in tune with my own sensibility. (And to congratulate Astley again, Bloodaxe is the publisher of Holub's Poems Before And After.) Yet there are hundreds more I wouldn't be without. Nor should anyone who cares about poetry.

 

THREE PLAYS: Whispers Along The Patio Nice Dorothy The Last Thrash by David Cregan. Oberon Books, 521 Cafectontan Rd, London, N7 9RH. ISBN 1-84002-245-0. 12.99.  

David Cregan made his name in British theatre in the 1960s. Miniatures was produced at the Royal Court in 1965. His first full-length play Three Men For Colverton was also produced there, in 1966. Cregan has been a presence in our theatre ever since. People over fifty with a keen interest in theatre will respond to his name as one of those associated with challenging, socially aware, robust drama of the kind which swept away the polite and irrelevant drawing-room plays of the 1950s. He is redolent of that era which gave us Play For Today and The Wednesday Play. Granted, it gave us The Beatles, David Frost and George Best as the first glamour-boy footballer too, but in spite of the frivolous invasion of the glib, three-minute culture of the entertainment industry, there was at that time serious work directed at a mass audience. Cregan comes from those more democratic, egalitarian days when egalitarian didn't mean pandering to the lowest common denominator in pursuit of profit, but a serious attention to the equal worth of every human life. He has more than survived the tidal wave of totalitarian free-market dogma which has swept aside the values championed in his plays, he has risen to greater heights as a dramatist and remains one of the most original, humane, funny, thought-provoking and deeply moral playwrights twentieth century British theatre has produced. The three plays published here testify to the stature of his achievement. Were these the work of a twenty-five year-old newcomer, their author would be hailed as a genius. There is nothing invidious intended in comparing Cregan to Mark Ravenhill or Martin McDonagh or Jez Butterworth or Charlotte Jones or Abi Morgan or Patrick Marber or Douglas Maxwell or Martin Crimp or Gregory Burke or Sarah Kane or Joe Penhall or David Greig or any other young, highly-praised dramatist and asserting that none of them has written plays any better than those collected in this volume. The difference, of course, is that Cregan is over seventy. It is a terrible prejudice. Were we to ignore plays because their authors were female or black or disabled or homosexual or Jewish. Well.... Yet, we take almost for granted that once people are old, great work is beyond them. Perhaps the only thing these plays exhibit which might not be present in such great measure in the work of a younger writer is wisdom. As for the rest, they have the zest, the wit, the energy, the very life of the work a twenty-five year-old mind might produce. Don't write Cregan off because his three score years and ten are passed. His work is as timely, engrossing and dramatically vibrant as ever.

Of course, it's an exaggeration to say Cregan is ignored. All three of these plays have been produced at the Orange Tree, Richmond, a theatre with which Cregan has a long connection. They are introduced by Sam Walters who has directed and acted in Cregan's plays over many years. Walter's short introduction goes to the essence of Cregan's originality: he writes a unique dialogue which on the surface is playful and can even give a first impression of superficiality, but beneath this, serious work is being done and the action of his plays moves very quickly, changes direction suddenly, demands acute attention from the audience and never stoops to that worst sin of the dramatist, flattering the crowd. Cregan has a very subtle and allusive mind. Every line of his plays says more or other than at first appears. As Walters says, every line is an action. In this he is very much like Beckett. He never wastes a line. His thread which runs from the apparently most inconsequential utterances of his characters to their deepest emotions and motivations is never lost. The surface playfulness comes from his understanding that sometimes you must give it to people slant because they won't be able to take it straight. As Emily Dickinson says:

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind -

As a dramatist, naturally, it isn't explanation Cregan provides, but his work is kind. Stringent, respectful of the audience's intelligence but never brutal or gratuitously shocking and thankfully bereft of melodrama. His style is deceptive (in the best possible sense) unassuming, devoid of self-pity or narcissism. This may go some way to explain his relative neglect, for he ought to be considered one of our most important dramatists. We live in a melodramatic and narcissistic age. Childish, hysterical self-promotion is the order of the day. Hence, a quietly allusive, self-effacing writer like Cregan seems to be outdated. As a matter of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. In these three plays, he is absolutely up-to-date. The most recent, Whispers Along The Patio, is about what happens when social values decline and people drift into the illusion that they can live in their own little enclaves simply using others as means to their satisfaction. Only a writer as subtle and clever as Cregan could write about the recent crisis in the Balkans by setting a play on a patio in Richmond. Yet Mathew, retired, comfortable, self-deluding wants to believe that the world ends at the boundaries of his garden, a delusion which doesn't stop him, however, wanting to make love to the young Macedonian visitor, Tania. Cregan never needs to raise his voice to make you understand how atrocious is the belief that we can engage with the lives of others while believing we owe them nothing. All the characters in this play, with the exception of Tania who is exonerated to some degree by her exile from her troubled land, are locked into their own needs. They are babyish in their belief that between those needs and the world that might fulfill them there can be no dislocation. They aren't monsters, or rather, they are the ordinary monsters of contemporary society. They have so little sense of obligation, so little imagination when it comes to the way in which their behaviour might affect the lives of others that they are sure to do harm, even though they intend none. And faraway Macedonia, that unfortunate land torn by the struggle for power among its neighbours and the ubiquitous West, is a victim, on an international scale, of the very illusions which power the behaviour of these respectable, suburban amoralists. Yet the play in which all this is explored is light, witty, amusing, rueful. Once again, it's important not to be invidious, but Cregan has no need of the hand-to-hand fighting of a Sarah Kane, nor for that matter of what John Lahr has called the updated melodrama of Pinter. The very form of his plays is a rebuke to the excessive, noisy, self-regarding, hysterical thoughtlessness of the age. It bears none of the hallmarks of that thickened depressiveness of the trendily disillusioned. Cregan has kept alive in his work a civilized sensibility while society has rushed headlong towards gross oafishness and the elevation of debased physicality.

The earliest play in this collection is Nice Dorothy, first produced in 1993. It's about youth and age, the capacity of erotic love to cross conventional boundaries, the inverted moralism of the apparently liberated and the distinction between genuine care for others and a kind of soppy, ostensibly self-sacrificing attitude which turns to hatred and resentment at the first touch of reality. Dorothy's niceness lies in never having lived. Specifically, her sexual nature is unfulfilled. She is nice as a way of attracting praise and she wants to attract praise because she is too timid to satisfy her needs. At fifty she falls in love with twenty-five year-old Trevor and has her first experience of physical release. But this love across the generations causes trouble. Hugh, whose ageing father lives in the same nursing home as Dorothy's mother and who wants to marry her, is devastated. The young and promiscuous Judy is outraged to see the man she fancies failing for an older woman. Meanwhile, the heartbroken Billie is wooed by Robert, Harriet falls for the older Roy, one of Hugh's drinking pals, and Milly, the enabler is doing very nicely by controlling the pension books of the home's residents and dreams of greater power if County Hall sells the place off. On the one hand, we must fulfil ourselves, on the other we have obligations to those whose lives touch on our own. Love is the greatest of life's adventures and without it we are just desiccated calculating machines. And human emotions won't be neatly packaged. This play is rooted in Cregan's conviction that to exist is to engage the destinies of others. Life is too messy to be lived by a set of hard and fast rules imposed from without. What saves us is imagination and courage. The cringe-making Judy is all promiscuous flippancy until the needs of her own heart are thwarted, at which point she turns into a glib and intolerant moralist. Lacking the imagination to see that her behaviour is mere time-serving, she can switch from apparent liberation to real intolerance in an instant. Hugh employs disapproval of the liaison between Dorothy and Trevor to mask his disappointment. Commited to looking after his very old father, he resents him simultaneously. Such is the sullied nature of human feeling.

In this play the young, the middle-aged and the very old discover that they don't, by virtue of their differences in age, inhabit different moral realms. Nor does age establish insuperable emotional or even physical barriers. Deftly, Cregan brings us back to that steadying realization that we are social by nature. Yet at the same time he stresses that the kind of society we inhabit depends on the decisions each one of us makes every day. Our emotions may fling us around but what brings us back to earth is the awareness that our obligations to ourselves go hand in hand with our obligations to others. Yet the play never states any of this. His spirited dialogue moves the action along and with every word the characters reveal themselves a little more. The intrigue is sufficiently enjoyable for a lazy theatregoer to think this is no more than a pleasant comedy. The serious questions are obliquely hinted at and when characters speak crucial lines they never speechify, they rise to a level of consciousness under the pressure of event and emotion which permits them to articulate more than they know. True drama. No hint of what Cregan has called "placard writing". The audience always reached /n the play never through it.

Cregan isn't a cynical writer. He is no naive optimist but his faith in humanity's capacity to find hope through imagination and courage never seriously falters. It's important too that he eschews ideology. His plays support no programme. All the same, they know what they're against. The Last Thrash is a broadside against the public school system. Set in Chantrey's Prep School for boys somewhere in the south of England it pillories the phoney values which underpin the private schools. The fiercely repressed English character, unable to express itself emotionally and sexually except furtively or clumsily, is what public schools really exist to produce. Jerry Morrison, a thirteen year-old pupil is in trouble for allegedly smoking cannabis and visiting the village shop on forbidden days. The Headmaster is going to thrash him. The Latin master is writing love letters to one of the pupils. The school secretary is in love with the Deputy Head. Sex is everywhere but officially nowhere. A minor royal is to join the school so scandal must be hushed up at all costs. The Headmaster says of his charges:

"I suppose we, very gently damage them, but only to improve them to a new, true direction.......And if they persist in being miserable, then after lights out they can sob themselves to sleep, or learn to masturbate in preparation for the great public schools."

The raison d'etre of the private schools is to turn out an elite of emotionally damaged, regressed, arrogant, time-serving hypocrites who have learned one important lesson: they have a god-given right to rule the world. The public schools of Britain remain in place to ensure the survival of the worst forms of snobbery. Cregan creates beautifully in this play the atmosphere of an institution defending itself against the advancing hordes, dinging to outworn traditions, priding itself on attitudes which have no place in a society which thinks of itself as democratic. Inward, mean, erratic, eccentric, full of pompousness but without a trace of real principle, this is a place which defines itself by what it excludes, and what it excludes of course is the poor, the needy, the working-class, the majority. Yet the tone of the play is not angry or disgusted. Rather, Cregan manages to poke affectionate fun at his characters and the ludicrous system they maintain. Like Mathew on his patio, they want to believe that the world ends with their playing fields. What the play reveals is that, finally, such a delusion can be maintained only through brutality.

An excellent collection of plays, then. With luck it will lead to the whole of Cregan's oeuvre being reissued. In front of me is a copy of the Methuen edition of Three Men For Colverton. On the back is a photo of Cregan as he was thirty or so years ago: a face full of serious intelligence, wit, concern, questioning. Something gentle and welcoming in spite of the obvious intellectuality. An obviously humane, witty, tolerant erudite man. A teacher. Cregan is a great teacher in his plays, but he never lectures. There are dramatists who have done little more than entertain whose reputation is higher than Cregan's. He should be treasured as one of our very best post-war theatre writers. I venture to say, once more without invidiousness, that he's on a par with Hare or Edgar or Churchill or Bond or Wesker. His reputation deserves to be as high.

 

BLUES FOR BIRD by Martin Gray. Santa Monica Press, P.O. Box 1076, Santa Monica, California, CA 90406-1076. 16.95 dollars. ISBN 1-891661-20-5  

Charlie Parker told Stan Levey that if you play more than four choruses you're just practising. Parker did sometimes play more than four choruses, as the live recorded evidence testifies, but there is truth in his assertion that longer is not always better. "Short views, for God's sake, short views," said Sydney Smith, and Saul Bellow remembered Miss Ferguson, his composition teacher, telling her pupils to "stick to the necessary and avoid the superfluous."

AH these thoughts came to my mind as I opened Martin Gray's Blues for Bird, his long (260 pages) poem about the life and music of Charlie Parker. Would it, I wondered, justify its length? And would I get something from it that I hadn't already found in the various prose books about Parker? A poem needs to have some life of its own beyond its subject-matter if it is to succeed, and its rhythm and language ought to add a heightened sense of awareness to the story. It might not be unfair to suggest that a poem about music should impart the feeling of that music as well as the facts of the musician's activities.

There's no doubt that Blues for Bird is an ambitious work and, from that point of view, Martin Gray deserves credit for attempting it. He also ought to be applauded for following Miss Ferguson's advice by sticking to the necessary and avoiding the superfluous. The story of how Parker revolutionised jazz and at the same time led a life most of us would have found a full-time occupation in itself is set down by him in a plain, direct language that, if it doesn't match Bird's flights of inventiveness, is at least easy to read. You know exactly where you are and a handy glossary explains the occasional technical term or use of jazz slang. There may be a drawback in all this in that, if the poem never flies high in metaphor or language, the reader might begin to wonder why it was written in that form. The answer could be that it allows for brevity and for avoiding the expanse of explanation that often comes with prose. A poem, at its best, can usefully shortcut to the necessary.

Martin Gray tells us that Blues for Bird is written in "imabic trimeters or syncopated hexameters," and the necessity to function within this sort of framework can sometimes lead to the syntax seemingly being pushed out of shape to make it fit. But the poem does manage to pack in most of the main details of how and why Parker functioned as he did and its occasional clumsiness is not a major problem. Whether or not it captures the music is another matter and Gray perhaps ought not to be condemned too much for any failures in his evocations of bebop. Few poems about jazz are truly succesful in this respect and, like any literature about the music, they should be used as an aid to hearing it rather than as some sort of substitute. If you read Blues for Bird and it makes you want to listen to a few Charlie Parker records then the poem has done its work.  

 

PASSAGE FROM HOME: A Memoir. by Philip Callow. Shoestring Press, 19 Devonshire Ave, Beeston, Nottingham, NG91BS. ISBN 1 899549 65.  6.99.  

This may be an autobiographical memoir but it reads like fiction. Callow is a fiction writer to his marrow, and one of the most accomplished. There are passages in this book reminiscent of Lawrence's vivid scenes. He has an uncanny way of revealing the essence of a character with a few lines. Late in the book, for example, he evokes an unpleasant work-mate and in no more than a paragraph brings to life his intrusive, browbeating, insensitive manner so the experience of recognition is both instant and profound and the recoil from the man inevitable. The book is full of such passages. Callow's family are known to you in the depths of their character and in the manner of the best novelists, Callow beautifully combines innate endowment and historical setting. These are working-class people. Rich in character, skill and energy, sometimes anxious, sometimes more fearful and timid than is good for them; but Callow never patronizes. His characters aren't puppets. Nor is there anything shallow or sentimental about the evocation of their living and working conditions. It is hard to come away from this book without the feeling that these people have been cramped by a society and an economic system that has failed to admit their full humanity. Yet Callow never states this nor engages in speculation. He captures the truth of their lives and the truth of a sympathetic reader's response is bound to be at least a residual unease at what these people had to put up with.

At the centre of the story is Callow himself, growing from a small child to the verge of manhood. His sensitive shyness, his instinctive recoil from the more brutal aspects of society, his difficulty in finding his way because of a nature which doesn't fit the norms, these things put you in touch with the essential Callow. He writes about himself without a hint of pomposity or self-excusing. Rather, behind the writing, there is a kind of wonder and mystery in the face of his own being, as if he is constantly surprised by the miracle of his own existence. He comes from a time which was far less frivolous than ours. An era marked not by shallow and foolish optimism, the essential tenor of our times, but by a serious hope for a better world. One of the striking details is the seriousness of the aspirations of some of the characters. If Clarrie Noy, the would-be dramatist with whom Callow works in the factory, is something of a Mr Casaubon in his aspirations, at least he is genuinely interested in theatre and knowledgeable about his interest. Similarly, the communism of Alec Jenkins, the factory Marxist who holds outdoor lunchtime seminars, may be misguided in its naivety, but at least it's serious, at least it reveals a concern for the future, for something more than immediate gratification and empty-headed consumerism. This is not to suggest that the book is queasily nostalgic. On the contrary, it's bracing and robust and thoroughly honest. Yet in the dislocation between the world from which Callow emerged and the one in which we have arrived there is a huge sense of disorientation, of a society lost in an historical dead-end, of hope deferred and of many sick hearts.

Callow is a dear writer whose simple style conceals enormous skill, hard work and experience. Why a major publisher didn't snap up this lovely book is beyond comprehension. Except, when you look at the piles of spatchcock, commercial trash they do publish, it is comprehensible. Credit to Shoestring once again for adding to its already impressive list. All the same, this book has one huge, overriding fault and one for which Callow should be severely castigated: it's far too short. Another four or five hundred pages of this marvelous writing would have been most welcome. But then, there are his fifteen novels to keep us going until the next installment.