for Grant Tarbard
Northern kids, their futures
predictable, they grafted dourly
five days a week down pits, in shops
and on the factory floor –
paying their way with some left
for vinyl, speed and threads.
Travelling miles by train each
weekend with a change of clothes
and a box of classic tracks
– minor hits and rarities
by blacks the charts ignored –
they kept the faith
and stormed the bouncers
– who lost their cool and didn’t get it –
once doors were opened
to another drenched all nighter
at Wigan Casino, the Highland Room,
the Golden Torch, the Wheel.
A four four beat was all
they needed, rock steady,
relentless, and simple lyrics
that told the truth. Hallucogenics
and hopeless solos
warped the walls of bedsits
but lads in bags and polo shirts,
their girls in swirling skirts,
danced all night till morning.
Doing splits and fancy tricks,
they span around like dervishes.
Imagine a world where pester power
rarely delivers the goods and a dawdling
hike to school’s the norm. You have fresh air,
your friends, and a small coin burning
a hole in your pocket. Spend it now
or do your best to make it last the week.
In class Rosanna Ferrario likes to sit
beside you. All the others make you blush.
They seem to know you like her too.
Give her a Love Heart with your message
so, at least, she’ll learn it’s true,
even though their taste is sour.
Your best friend Jan eats salami.
How can anyone like that stuff?
Does he like bacon boiled with cabbage?
The day you both forget the milk,
singing Beatles’ songs, Mr Murphy canes you
to help you mend your ways.
Now that the boys have both moved on
with houses and wives of their own
I have dusted off their albums.
How many years was it we shared
our philatelic obsessions?
– No more than three or four, I’d guess,
piling in on a Saturday
to Ralph’s – or was it Rafe’s? – domain
the breezy end of Sea View Street
with barely room for three to turn.
Across his counter the old man
held forth like a sage professor.
Hemmed in on all fronts by his hoard
of collectables, he dug out
whatever you needed: medals,
fossils, Roman coins; cigarette
and tea cards; old programmes tracing
The Mariners’ frequent defeats.
But his delight and ours was stamps…
Distracted first by bumper packs
of still unfree Soviet states
– the regional garb of Polska,
the bright blooms of Magyar Posta –
we focussed in on chosen fields.
Able to buy just one a week,
Dan indulged his love of history,
collecting penny blacks. Jim trawled
imperial islands, but stuck
with George V. The designs fixed,
it was only the names that changed.
For me it was all nostalgia,
the sepia tints of childhood –
my Irish collection taking
me home to turf, wells, and freedom;
the QE IIs charting my life
back to its birth and silver spoon.
Note: Babies during the week of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953 were given
commemorative gold or silver spoons. Gold was for those born on the day.
THE OBSERVER’S SERIES
At nine years old, a clever clogs,
I started my set with a prize.
In the early heats of a quest
for the naturalist of the year
I’d dreamed up a killer question –
Do birds sing by instinct or learn?
Decades later I might have asked
if a poet is born or made…
But that day, scaling the podium,
a dignitary clasped my hand;
with a fixed smile he presented
my own Observer’s British Birds.
Pocket-sized, compendious, packed
with all of the facts you need,
I could feel it nestle snugly
into my open palm. A page
at a time, it named the species
with Latin tags and coloured prints.
When other volumes came along,
they added up to a library
perching quietly on their shelf:
minerals, trees, pond life, mammals –
the world reduced to habitats,
taxonomy’s abstract grid.
Today they’re still collectable,
the domain of crazed completists
who fork out top dollar for duds
in all extant editions: Sewing,
Golf and Silver; Basic Aircraft
Military, Basic Aircraft Civil.
FIVE POEMS from THE METAL EXCHANGE
for Kevin Mulqueen
A numinous bead
slithering in a world
of angles, it seems
at first composed.
Probe more deeply
and you will see
it weeps elegant tears.
it adheres to laws
of tension, weight,
Devoid of guile,
it has no time
though you stare
for days, you cannot
see through it,
I am what I am –
make of that
what you please.
Breathe it in,
or touch its skin
with your own
you will learn
The first and lightest
of all the metals,
you have existed
since the beginning
or shortly after
the process started.
Even your name
is like a wisp,
afloat and free
beyond cosmic fallout
and the iron cage
of time in which
A misnomer, surely,
that men have called
you stone, when
you’re soft as butter.
your wounds, you
you keep your balance;
your radiance round.
the surgeon’s knife,
What possessed someone, who might not
have known, from one day to the next,
what or even if he’d eat, to pound a rock
to fragments he would later refine
on a grindstone to the brownish dust
his art required; and once he had mixed
a workable paste why did he need
to draw a line between the image inside
his head and the world beyond, discovering,
instinctively, that a shape’s contained
and feeling implied in a few sinuous strokes?
Expanding his palette to yellow ochre,
lime white, the blood red of hematite,
he fleshed out the thews of bison,
the elongated necks of horses in flight
across the plain, or the rage of a mammoth
backed up against a cliff top.
His gift acknowledged beyond his clan’s
glimmering hearth, his painted hands
and distant look marked him out as one
inclined to his own peculiar madness.
ODE TO YELLOW
Let us rejoice in yellow:
its gleaming gold,
its haloes, its ordinary
virtues too –
the wholesome glow
of the lemons
in the usual bowl.
And when the sun
a Van Gogh harvest
The colour of hope
it signals from afar.
Its buses trundle
Its taxis negotiate
In the land its river
floods and blesses
The card it serves
but keeps you
in the game.
Beyond its brilliance
there are times
you will see
its garish side
and the danger
you can’t breath.
its aspect sours
you will hear
how yellow screams
in jaundiced robes