The year in question this month is 1981 – the year I briefly assumed the role of strike leader* as well as letters editor (still), father-of-four, husband etc … But back to reading. There are only 18 entries in my “books read” tally for this particular year, making it one of the shortest lists (only 1997 has fewer, I think), though I see that I read two really big novels – Tom Jones and Bleak House – in 1981. But for my re-reading I’ve gone for a book of poetry: A Night in the Gazebo by Alan Brownjohn.
At least one volume of poetry has appeared in most years’ lists, but I may have missed out some of what I’ve bought or borrowed in the last 40 years. Perhaps because I’ve only half-read some of the poems therein, or not wholeheartedly liked them, I haven’t bothered to make a note of them. Alan Brownjohn is actually a case in point: I have two of his collections on my shelves – A Song of Good Life (1975) and The Old Flea-Pit (1987), neither of which feature on any year’s list, even though the first actually has an inscription on the title page that shows I went to poetry reading by him (“Signed for John with all good wishes – Alan Brownjohn, Walthamstow Central Library, 28th February 1979”). A Night in the Gazebo, though, must have been borrowed.
For this re-reading, I’ve read not only the book in question but also some poems in the other two mentioned, plus a later Brownjohn: Ludbrooke & Others (2010). Although not a Top Writer, AB is, I think, my kind of poet: observant, fond of expanding on the details of everyday life, occasional user of elaborate poetic forms, and not afraid of seeing the funny side of things. In A Night in the Gazebo there are some good examples: ‘A Bad Cat Poem’ is simply about a couple trying in vain to make their cat use a cat-flap; ‘Union Man’ is a poem in praise of a union official (“In a city where minds are slabbed with gold, / He builds a sheltering-wall of brick”); another poem is entitled ‘Art Deco Railway Advertisement’ and that’s what it’s about. Although some poems are dull or disappointing, I liked the collection’s final offering: ‘The Seventh Knight and the Green Cat’ (more cats!), a kind of alliterative parody of Gawain and the Green Knight. This shows, as well as Brownjohn’s sense of humour, his penchant for narrative – which also comes to the fore in his ‘Old Fox’ poems (two in this collection, another couple in A Song of Good Life) which feature a disreputable subverter of committee meetings and other conventions. Something of the same tone is to be found in his sequence of 60 poems, all 13 lines long, about ‘Ludbrooke’. This (fictional) character is an ageing and somewhat deluded figure trying to maintain his dignity while chafing at his lack of recognition for past achievements and his failures to attract younger women. Sample lines:
No one has phoned him for what seems several days.
Ludbrooke tries one-four-seven-one, the lonely man’s friend,
And confirms it, his last call was on the ninth… [‘His 1471’]
He does not concede that any quality
Essential if one wants to look civilised
Is actually beyond him. He expects
To be thought well-informed, open-minded, and controlled
In every sort of appetite … [‘His Excuse’]
Brownjohn is also, it should be noted, a London poet. I call in evidence ‘Reflections on Learning’ in A Song of Good Life, an elaborately rhymed poem about his schooldays in Hither Green; or ‘Waterloo Road’ in The Old Flea-Pit, which describes the road’s “rainy stretch up to the river / Past garage, café, theatre, a grey half-mile /Slowing down to a darkness under the railway / Where pedestrians cross it and not notice.” I like that sort of thing.
One further observation: Brownjohn – who is now 85 – seems to have been passed from publisher to publisher in his long career, rather in the manner of a not-quite-top-class utility midfielder moving regularly between football clubs. After Macmillan, Secker & Warburg and Hutchinson, he seems to have settled in at Enitharmon, whose print and paper quality are far superior to (for instance) Secker – their hardback copy of Song of Good Life has paper that has yellowed badly on my shelves. (Secker’s habit of starting a completely new poem two-thirds of the way down a page is irksome, too.)
I think I’ve gone on enough for this month, but more by Brownjohn can be found on the web, for instance at http://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/alan-brownjohn
As for other stuff I read in May, there were a couple of short story collections, very different in manner and subject matter: William Maxwell’s All the Days and Nights (American, suave and rather old-fashioned) and Ludmila Petrushevskaya’s There Once Was a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband … (Russian, bleak and blunt). Plus Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man and Going to the Dogs by Erich Kästner. A mixed bag there but, oddly, nothing set in Britain …
* I was father of the Radio Times NUJ chapel at a time when we had a dispute with BBC management – RT being part of BBC Publications in those days – and we had been ignored in a corporation-wide “regrading” exercise, seemingly denied the pay rise that other BBC journalists got. The strike lasted nearly a fortnight, and threatened to disrupt production of a special Royal Wedding issue. But it ended up being settled in talks at ACAS, where the NUJ side was led by John Foster and the late (and much missed) Vincent Hanna. I was, I felt, more a figurehead than a firebrand – most chapel members provided the impetus in picketing, leafleting and demonstrating, and I was more or less an onlooker at the negotiations.