Archive for February, 2010

Variations on a Serenade to Teesborough

Monday, February 8th, 2010

I last saw my dad on platform four of Newcastle Central Station as my train left for King’s Cross. There he was, wrapped up in his tweed hat and coat, woollen scarf, leather gloves, smart shoes, shirt and tie as always, towering above my mum, who was also bundled up against the north wind.

He had tears in his eyes as he always did when I left. As the time came for me to set off for London he would think of more and more stuff to talk about: football, books, places we’d visited when I was a kid, piano music, plays, anything so he didn’t have to thinking about our being 275 miles apart once again. My mum would already be thinking about what to cook for dinner. He looked old and tired as he smiled and waved.

“I always wonder if it will be the last time I see them,” I said to Nick.

The last time we spoke, we argued. He called just after we’d got back from holiday. Like most dads he usually left the ‘phone calls to my mum. This time he gave me one of his lectures. They came once every couple of years; he would store up everything he thought I was doing wrong, every mistake I’d made, all my faults, my failures and it would all flood out in one terrible, unstoppable drenching. He used to think it was for my own good. I don’t remember the details, only that this one was about money. What did I think I was doing, going away on expensive holidays while I was remortgaging my flat to pay credit card bills? We both got cross. He calmed down when I yelled, “I’m only angry because I know you’re right!” Then we were able to talk more reasonably about other things. I remember promising him that I would never have a mortgage more than 50% of my property value. You need to know that my dad was a building society manager for 20 years. Saving was very important to him. Keeping his bank accounts accurate to the last penny occupied much of his retirement. Making sure that my mum would be “comfortable” if he died and that my sister and I wouldn’t get into too much of a financial scrape were the things which worried him most in his last years.

We also had a chat about a book he’d given me for Christmas, The Wind That Blows.
“I bet you’ve not even opened it, have you?” he said.
“I have! I’ve read 30 pages!” I protested. True, but I had struggled with the first chunk of FW Lister’s novel, the part about life on a naval destroyer in wartime. Three weeks later my dad died in his sleep. It took me another three years before I could pick up the book and start again.

I began to understand my dad a bit better when I started to read his books. I borrowed his copy of The L-Shaped Room. It helped me to see things his way. The progressive 1950s take on sex-before-marriage, illegitimate children, how children “turned” homosexual, inter-religious unions, immigration, communism, a complete set of modern moral values. All there in a novel. It was better than a film because there was no screen to separate me from the action. Reading it, I was right there, in an L-shaped room with them. I could begin to see that my parents’ views had been very modern once; without that book I’m not sure I would have made the connection.

Three days after my dad died my mum collapsed; a few minutes later she rejoined us but had left most of her memory behind. In the first series of 24, Jack Bauer’s wife Teri lost her memory from shock. People criticised the story as unrealistic. We know better. What was unrealistic was the speed at which Teri got hers back. Post traumatic amnesia. The mind chooses not to remember.

My mother would not be left alone for a moment. She was frantic each time she remembered where she was but nothing else. Each time we reminded her what had happened she was desolate; each time she forgot again a fog closed around her. It was shift work: me, Ruthie, her sister Viv, bailed out by friends and neighbours. The humour was black. We had no time to think or talk about my dad. Sometimes we’d have silence, a five minute break, then the little voice would pipe up, “Where’s Alan?” and we’d start all over again.

She was also electing not to sleep in case she never woke up again. Fair enough, understandable under the circumstances. When she finally nodded off we would catch up with our own sleep or find something to distract us. I chose books.

My dad had given me a copy of The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin. What a marvellous book: stuffed with gung-ho bright young things and low, thuggish criminal types and amateur sleuth Professor Gervase Fen who drove his unreliable, Italian two-seater recklessly around Oxford. Penguin had reissued a stack of its early crime novels and my dad was keen to share his rediscovered passion for Crispin and Marjory Allingham.

I found four green Penguins on his bookshelf, took them and dunked myself in “cosy crime”. My mum had her way of escaping reality. I’d found one in Albert Campion and his assistant, Lugg. This way the connection with my dad didn’t have to be over. We could still share common experiences. Three years later, after I had read the entire works of Allingham and Crispin, I picked up The Wind That Blows.

FW Lister wrote four novels. The first, These Four Shall Die, is set in Roman Britain at Hadrian’s Wall. I haven’t read it yet. The next two are set in the 1930s in County Durham (Shadow over Spennylam) and Teesside (Portrait of a Man); if you want to know the way people lives and thought between the wars, during fascism, after the Russian Revolution, before the nuclear world, read them.

The Wind That Blows, published in 1948, tells the tale of Joe Smith, his wartime experiences at sea and the shore leave he’s been longing for in Middlesbrough (or rather Teesborough) after a harrowing survival and long recovery from a torpedo attack.

I’d always assumed that I had a lot in common with my dad. We were working class from the North East; we liked mostly the same things: films, theatre, playing music, Middlesbrough FC, going out shopping, hunting flea markets and junk stalls for treasure. He had been searching bookstalls for years looking for The Wind That Blows and was tickled pink to get his piano player’s hands on two copies at his favourite second hand bookshop, Barter Books in Alnwick, £3.60 each. My mum was convinced that the dust jacket illustrator also worked for Vogue in the 1950s. My dad recollected being very impressed when he read it at the time; he didn’t say much about it, except that he’d been hunting it down for years. He wanted me to read it for myself, come back and report. Reading it, and realising that I’d never lived anywhere which resembled that world, light dawned that we’d led very different lives. I discovered that I wasn’t proper working class at all. That was a bit distressing.

One thing I should explain. My dad had two completely separate lives in the 1940s. The first was at home with his mam, dad and Great Aunt. Granddad was a crane driver at the ICI and Grandma worked in shops until she married. Granddad came back from WW1 and had no job, like so many of them, but they married all the same and lived with Aunt Henrietta until he got work. At home my dad listened to the radio, played billiards, read the Beano and supported the Labour Party. He had a scholarship to Middlesbrough Grammar School.
War broke out and half the school was evacuated to the Teesdale countryside, dished out amongst local families and educated in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. He was moved to avoid the bombs aimed at Middlesbrough’s docks, one of which lands in Joe’s street in The Wind That Blows. Oddly, my dad’s best friend John was moved from Tyneside to Saltburn (Lister’s Saltscar, where Joe spends all his money on the glamorous but faithless Inez) which got more hits than his home town of Gateshead.)

My dad found himself in a huge, elegant house in a picturesque village, the guest of Dr. Hawthorne, his second wife and his grown up daughter, Mamie. He had his own L-shaped room. Here he listened to the radio, played the piano and endless games of village green cricket, read the Observer and supported the Liberal party. Mamie taught him to play on their Steinway in the library. By the time he left, he was composing his own music, some of which I have safely stored in my piano stool.

As the threat fizzled to an end in England, he went back to the family’s terrace house in Stockton-on-Tees. He kept up his piano playing and qualified to be a teacher while working at the town hall then the Middlesbrough branch of the Halifax Building Society. There can’t have been many other crane drivers whose sixteen year old lads were writing Ballades, Serenatas and Fantasias in G. He was dragged off to the Navy for his National Service. Here he learned not to volunteer for anything, that many officers were posh but thick as two short planks, and that aeroplanes were dangerous. He never set foot on a ship. His friend John, who had signed up for the Army hoping to do very little and stay near home, was posted to Yokohama.

My dad had seen genuine middle class life first hand as a welcome guest, but it wasn’t really his to join. The Hawthornes showed him Edmund Crispin, but if he wanted to read about home there was FW Lister.

Reading these novels is not a comfy ride. It’s also nigh on impossible to read all three. AbeBooks have The Wind That Blows; my copy of Shadow Over Spennylam cost me £46. Portrait of a Man finally got me through the doors of Humanities 1 at the British Library. They fetched it from Boston Spa and I established myself at seat 2777.

At the reception desk the chap looked at my card. Ominously he returned with two books. They were all about Irish horticulture.
“These are not my books.”
“Sarah McCarthy?”
“Sarah McCartney!”
He chuckled and came back with a faded aquamarine hardback. I don’t mind not owning it as long as I know I can visit.

Portrait of a Man is set in Inglehow (That’s Marske by the Sea where my Auntie Pamela lived). The Man is a headmaster, Will Hackett. There’s always a wise older man in FW’s books. One of the few things I do know about him is that he trained as a teacher at St. John’s in York and was headmaster of a Teesside village school. In The Wind That Blows it’s the headmaster who tries to get Joe to see sense; in Shadow Over Spennylam it’s the Methodist minister, then the football coach and finally the Church of England vicar with the sound advice and wise words. (But we never listen until it’s too late, do we?)

In Shadow Over Spennylam we meet Tom Coulson, one of four brothers in a working class family. Tom is a fitter at a steelworks about to lay off half its workforce. As this is F.W. Lister, you know that Tom or his dad will be drawing dole pretty soon. Everything goes wrong that can, with the occasional gleam of sunshine through the clouds. After chucking his characters down a pit, F.W. leaves them enough rope to clamber out if they’re tough enough.

He must have had a terrifying mother-in-law. Joe Smith has Mary Woodham’s middle class mother to deal with and Tom has the formidable Mrs Lowton, mother of chaste, religious Jenny, followed by Mavis’s ma, the slovenly Mrs Evans. For each of his well-to-do heroines there is her opposite number: Inez, the sophisticated wild child who will hang around with any man with a car and a full wallet, and Mavis, common as muck, done up like a film star, looking for a quick ticket out of her miserable home. Perhaps things will turn out reasonably in the end but you can be certain it will all get very complicated along the way. These books are full of characters, places and difficult situations which my dad’s and granddad’s friends and families lived though. They are fascinating, painfully compulsive. People never said what they meant and emotions were inappropriate at the tea table.

You hope that when Tom Coulson plays for Spennylam Star, observed by the Aston Villa scout with the papers in his pocket, he will score a blinder and get signed up there and then. Yes, he scores a blinder, but this is FW Lister and he’s writing about life without hope in a town without a future. We are not reading Sunshine Over Spennylam. The chapter in which that football match unfolds has more suspense than any blockbusting bestseller. This could have happened to any of us. He writes about tragedies which happen in everyone’s life, but blimey, he really does pack them in! He takes a whole street’s disasters and gives them all to one family. He lets us see them coming, but there is no way to steer round them.

For northern lads, FW Lister must have been like reading their own secret diaries. Had anyone written a novel set in Middlesbrough before this? Why are they out of print and forgotten? Maybe it’s because the bravery, virtue and honest toil in these tales are loaded down with undiluted hypocrisy, drunkenness, injustice, violence, betrayal, sex, unemployment and poverty. There’s also a lot about God and religion, more than current taste decrees.

In his twenties my dad was on the lookout for someone like Mary Woodham, elegant, good looking, well brought up, demure. When he saw my mum for the first time, he knew he’d found her. Now that I’ve read The Wind That Blows, I understand his dislike of overly made-up women, public displays of affection and common behaviour. He’d met too many like Inez. My mum wasn’t always demure. I see now why the engagement was almost ended when, dressed in her smart grey coat and Danish silver, she attracted his attention with a piercing whistle which brought central Middlesbrough to a halt.

I think FW Lister probably married a lovely girl like Mary too, learned to live with the disdainful mother-in-law, her snobbery and self-righteousness, got on well with her long-suffering dad and was a great headmaster – but I don’t know. Everything I know about him comes from the dust jacket of The Wind That Blows, first edition 1948.

What else is there?



FW Lister, Portrait of a man, 1933, Frederick Muller Ltd
FW Lister, Shadow over Spennylam, A Tale of the Depressed Areas, 1938, Frederick Muller Ltd
FW Lister, The Wind That Blows, 1948, Frederick Muller Ltd


Monday, February 8th, 2010

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

(From Edward Thomas, The Collected Poems, p27, Faber & Faber 2004)

Of course when I get to Adlestrop, it’s not as I remembered it – sorry, not as I imagined it. The mental image was so vivid – the feel of the velour seats, the smell of pipe smoke in the carriage, the red neck of the chap who cleared his throat, the shimmering stillness of the platform – paint peeling on benches, creosote bubbling from the hot sleepers. It had that wrong-end-of-the- telescope clarity that certain memories acquire with age, only more so because I was looking through the extra lens of someone else’s mind.

No train has stopped at Adlestrop station for forty years. Sleek, bullet-nosed machines thunder past on their way to Worcestershire or Oxfordshire, their schedules tight, their windows sealed against the unnecessary friction of birdsong. On the platform no one comes and no one goes. Well, actually that’s not quite true. I am about to come and go: a return ticket from Edinburgh to Adlestrop – a brief 24 hours in Gloucestershire. The owners of the guest house were excited to hear that I’m to write something about Edward Thomas and have arranged for me to meet some of the local characters – in particular Dorothy, who has lived in the village all her life and whose father worked for the railway in 1914, and John, an Edward Thomas expert.

But the truth is I know relatively little about Edward Thomas. Apart from Adlestrop – which happens to be my favourite poem and which I have often recited on the performance poetry circuit, I know a smattering of his poems and prose and some details of his life. I will probably be a disappointment to them. On the other hand, I have the books and a six hour train journey ahead of me. To work!

The village itself is quite beautiful, and seems not to have changed that much since 1914. Its seventy inhabitants mostly live in pretty golden stone cottages. I walk up the hill behind Adlestrop on a crisp winter morning and, in spite of the map on loan from my kindly hosts at ‘Lower Farm’, manage to get lost. I never was much good with maps. There is a momentary panic, reminiscent of school days and the horrors of compulsory Orienteering. Then I relax, slow down and decide to follow my nose.
There is a glen near my home where I walk often – usually very slowly. I have been there hundreds of times, but it is always a new experience. When I go there with so-called serious walkers they say: “You’ll never get fit that way.” But I don’t walk to get fit; I walk in the hope of finding … something. I want to tell them to slow down, to match the pace of the place, and the pace of that place is slow. It asks you to take the time to stand and stare, or as Thoreau called it, to saunter. He suggests that the word derives from pilgrims who wandered about the countryside in the middle ages, seeking for charity and claiming they were going to the Holy Land or Saint Terre. They were seen as being rather lazy, pausing to look at this and that, taking detours as and when the spirit led them:

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks – who had a genius, so to speak, for SAUNTERING” (from Walking, The Atlantic Monthly, 1862)

Thomas himself was a great walker – he knew large areas of Wales and the south of England intimately. His good friend Eleanor Farjeon, who later wrote the famous hymn Morning Has Broken (with its reference to a certain blackbird), said of him:

“To walk with Edward Thomas in any countryside was to see, hear, smell and know it with fresh senses. You would not walk that road again as you did before. You would know it in a new way.” (from Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, OUP1958)

Evidently he didn’t like the railway, and always chose to live as far from it as possible, but on a hot June afternoon in 1914 he found himself on the express train from Paddington to Worcester when it made an unscheduled stop at a small country station. And nothing happened. History tries to convince us that life is made up of a series of events, but actually it is made up of centuries when nothing much happens and a few years, or even days, of feverish activity. So here nothing happens except for the things that go on while nothing is happening: bodies function normally, breathing proceeds uninterrupted. The train exhales, then someone coughs. Apart from that there is a moment of absolute stillness.

When was it that we came to equate success with speed and mobility? Whenever you see a ‘successful’ person on telly they’re always going somewhere – in the back of a fast car or on a yacht or a private plane. Like dogs straining at the leash we are always trying to get to the place where we’re not. Rarely do we pause and breathe in and experience the joy – or the gloom – of being fully present. Some people find such moments vaguely disturbing. They fidget, unfold the newspaper, clear their throat, anything to break the stillness, to fill the void. But it strikes me that it is when nothing is happening that we have a chance to get in touch with what is. I find that the best ideas come in times of stillness, the most creative stuff happens when I’m not trying to be creative.

I wander back through the village, past the bus shelter, which now houses the original railway sign – the only surviving first-hand witness to Thomas’s transcendental moment. As I look at it I imagine him rolling this evocative new word around in his mind. Apparently he was a lover of curious sounding place names. Where does a name like Adlestrop come from? How does it evolve? Often in the frequent repetition of a word one loses touch temporarily with meaning – the word melts and becomes merely a collection of sounds. In Old Man (Andrew Motion’s favourite poem, incidentally) Thomas says:

Even to one that knows it well, the names
Half decorate, half perplex the thing it is:
At least, what that is clings not to names
In spite of time. And yet I like the names.
(from Collected Poems, p9, Faber & Faber 2004)

I wait for some kind of powerful feeling to overwhelm me – but it doesn’t, so I take a few photos of the sign to show to my wife. Perhaps Thomas didn’t feel anything overwhelming during the unwonted pause at the station. It may have been one of those revelations that take root and grow gradually in the memory. At the time it seems a thing of no importance, but later, when you casually recount the story, the room grows quiet as people listen, and you realise that you have entertained angels unawares. It reminds me of something Patrick Kavanagh said about the subjects poetry ought to deal with:

“What seems of public importance is never of any importance. Stupid poets and artists think that by taking subjects of public importance it will help their work to survive. There is nothing as dead and damned as an important thing. The things that really matter are casual, insignificant little things, things that you would be ashamed to talk of publicly. You are ashamed and then after years someone blabs and you find that you are in the secret majority…” (from Self Portrait. Dublin: Dolmen 1964)

It seems that Thomas didn’t write Adlestrop until at least six months after the event (if it can be called an event). I find that memories often lurk for years in dark corners of my mind. They watch like ghosts from dingy doorways, and then it turns out that they just wanted me to write about them. As we begin to communicate, they open a door to a warren of interesting thoughts and revelations. These reminiscences are rarely of deeds or actions, more of things I felt or observed. The times when I was – not when I did. The times when I saw – even though at the time I may not have realised that I saw anything.

Thomas thought he was seeing only a name, but the train window opened onto another dimension, where the blackbird was speaking “like the first bird”. Did he trill a three-note song? And did Thomas hear in it a transliteration of what he could see: Ad-le-strop… Wil-low-herb… Mead-ow-sweet… Glouce-ster-shire? The poem is full of such dactyls – as if the bird were calling out like an efficient station master, listing all things, as his ancestors had done since long before the Anglo-Saxon Johnny-come-latelies got in on the act. Before he knows it, the poet’s consciousness is soaring out over the English countryside and beyond. He finds himself rising above the realm of what can be understood into the realm not of the meaningless but of that which is beyond meaning – what the ancients might have called the peace of God which passes all understanding. I came across this description of a bicycle ride in one of Thomas’s prose works:

“At that time I was a great deal nearer to being a disembodied spirit than I can often be… I fed through the senses directly… through the eyes chiefly, and was happier than is explicable or seems reasonable. This pleasure of my disembodied spirit was an inhuman and diffused one, such as may be attained by whatever dregs of this our life survive after death.”
(from In Pursuit of Spring, p210, Thomas Nelson & Sons 1914)

A year after Adlestrop Edward Thomas joined the Royal Garrison Artillery and trained, appropriately enough, to be an observer. Reading through the diary he kept in the trenches in 1917, I’m interested by his preoccupation with birds and planes – it’s as if he were scanning a wider and wider horizon. In a letter to his son Merfyn he describes how, on the 15th of March, he climbed up the inside of a tall chimney to get a better view of enemy positions. He had to come down before he reached the top, due partly to the shells bursting around him and also to the fact that he knew one rung of the ladder was unstable, but not which one. A few weeks later, on the first morning of the battle of Arras, he was killed by an enemy shell. It was Easter Day, 1917. One of his senior officers wrote to his wife Helen describing the funeral: “As we stood by his grave the sun came up and the guns seemed to stop firing for a short time. This typified for me what stood out most in your husband’s character …”

But I must tell you what I found when I reached the station. There was a tall wire fence and the following notice:


This is the site of the former Adlestrop Railway Station, the inspiration for Edward Thomas’s famous poem Adlestrop.
British Railways closed the Station in 1966 and all the buildings, platforms and infrastructure were demolished and removed.
The land is now privately owned and you are asked NOT to trespass onto this land NOR disturb the occupants of Station Cottage with enquiries.
Thank you.

I got as close as I could and viewed a scene of desolation:


They have forgotten Adlestrop
Again. All hopeful I began
To wander by the railway line
One afternoon. It was late Jan.

A wire fence, a terse, official note
Ensured that no one came
To the old platform. What I saw
Was entropy! That and the shame

Of motor-coaches sprouting grass
And rubbish scattered carelessly,
A layering of negligence
Upon a poet’s memory,

A ruined double-decker bus
And dismally, round it, rustier,
Sadder and sadder, rotting hulks
From Bedfordshire and Lancashire.

Where are the blasted railway enthusiasts when you need them? If only the land had been sold to someone who wanted to restore it, instead of someone who didn’t give a damn. How hard would it be to erect a shelter and replace the old sign, to make a place where people could sit for a while, as restless commuters whistling past look and think – ‘Ah yes, Adlestrop’? And of course there should be a copy of the poem in each carriage of every train that uses the line – Poems on the Overground.

On the other hand, shouldn’t the saunterer be able to find Adlestrop wherever he or she is? Actually it’s probably more to do with Adlestrop finding the saunterer. You can go out wandering on your own, (it is generally a solitary thing, a lonely-as-a-cloud experience) you can slow down, you can keep your eyes and ears peeled, you can even do nothing, but in the end you can’t make it happen. It comes to you. It is a gift. It is the Present. It is here and it is now.

Sauntering back through the village I meet a man with a pot of paint sprucing up the village hall. This is Terry, who tells me he has escaped the rat race and come to Adlestrop seeking a quieter life. I tell him what I’m thinking of writing about – those moments when you see through a layer and touch something, you’re not sure what. He seems to know what I mean: “I remember coming down the hill through the village one evening on my bike and seeing a stag in the wood. I stopped and stared at him – and for a moment he stared back. It was like something passed between us. It was just a moment and then he was gone. I don’t know what it was.”

I spend a fascinating hour chatting to Dorothy Price about her memories of the railway and later I sit with John Gillett, the Adlestrop church organist and Edward Thomas expert, who has strong Quaker leanings. When I explain my theory of inactivity he comments that it’s a very Quaker-like idea, this waiting in silence for the spirit to move. Mostly we rush around trying to do stuff – to boost our standing or make a living – then the train stops (sometimes with a bump) due to circumstances beyond our control, and while we clear our throats, look at our watches and curse the inefficiency of the service, we notice a fellow-traveller staring out of the window with what can only be described as a faraway look in his eyes.


Collected Poems, Edward Thomas, published by Faber & Faber. The latest 2004 edition contains Thomas’s prose War Diary of 1917.