Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Review: Fosdyke and Me, and Other Poems, by John Gilham (Stairwell Books/Fighting Cock Press, 2010; ISBN 978-0-906744-33-8)

York poet John Gilham's Fosdyke stories are well known around the open mic nights and folk clubs of the city. They have been brought together in a collaborative venture by two of York's small presses, alongside a short compilation of the author's previously published poetry – much of it successfully placed in prestigious journals including Acumen and The North.

I hesitate to describe the ten Fosdyke tales as poems, because they're not really poems, except insofar as they have been laid out in an eye-catching, verse-like structure on the page. They could just as easily have been presented as prose without losing any of their impact. The tales have echoes of the Paddy Kelly sagas of Brian Jacques, relocated to West London and reshaped for a post-watershed audience.

Fosdyke, like Paddy Kelly, occupies a space somewhere between fiction and autobiography. His world is a vanished one: the world of Boys' Brigade football and church parades, Young Socialists dances and second-hand Hillmans. Fosdyke never wins a football match, never gets to second base with the local girls, and spends his life "wait[ing] for something to happen." Whether a real-life Fosdyke ever actually existed is immaterial; this hapless hero personifies the aspirations and failures of a generation.

We first meet the teenage Fosdyke and his biographer on the playing fields of West Middlesex, where they "paw the ground like nervous thoroughbreds" and "look threatening behind our NHS specs", though "our legs, I seem to remember, developed all the elegance of a new-born giraffe" (from Fosdyke and Me). They are life's underdogs, only really getting one moment in the spotlight – or rather on a soapbox at Speaker's Corner, surrounded by

"All the black power guys and the hell fire guys and not yet the women's lib guys cos this was the sixties;
And the Communists and the Nazis and the flat earth people and not yet the gay rights people cos this was the sixties;
And the CND people and Bertrand Russell (cos this was the sixties);
And an old woman with an umbrella who heckled everybody and waved it in your face and said we were rubbish."
(from Me and Fosdyke Do Poetry)

Subsequent poems take "Fosdyke and Me" on a road trip to the Costa Del Sol, through university and marriage and into middle age, "trying to sell things we had no faith in to someone who didn’t want to know" (Me and Fosdyke Go Repping).

This is effective, atmospheric writing. The greyness of a 1960s Britain where free speech and the sexual revolution have yet to arrive is beautifully evoked. There is poignancy in the failures of our heroes, and a delightful music to the narrator's long litanies of disappointment:

"That was the night we found out that this town had a policeman and he was very fat and very greasy and wore a moustache and dark glasses even at night,
That he kept an Alsatian and that they both hated the English"
(from Fosdyke and Me On Holiday).

There is a distinctly masculine tone to the whole Fosdyke cycle. Granted, the protagonists are hardly "alpha males". They spend their lives overshadowed by more powerful women – mothers, sisters, wives, Stella the waitress on the Stirling ring road who has sex with Fosdyke on Tuesdays. The female characters in the story are earthy, but unfathomable – a mystery to be worshipped at a distance, wooed with second-rate poetry, and eventually won round with promises of honeymoons in Filey. Fosdyke's frustrated romanticism is equal parts Roger McGough and Adrian Mole:

"For oh how we wanted to lie in bed with a girl on a sunny morning
And make poetry out of used tea-bags and last-night's stockings hanging over the radiator
Like all the other poets who wore long scarves and cord jackets and had girlfriends with long hair and short skirts to be their bed-sit Muse"
(from Me and Fosdyke Do Poetry)

But I have to confess that I have no idea how a female reader, approaching this collection for the first time, would respond to these poems.

The poems which make up the second half of the collection also have an element of nostalgia about them. These are poems of reminiscence. Their starting-point is the author's memories of a family growing up: the places where his children were born (Auden's Centenary), the beach where they learned to skim stones (Skimming), the butcher who supplied the family’s meat (Mr Hoffman). Or else they are wistful, gently surreal reflections on "what might have been": the train driver's admonition to "take all your longings with you" (Announcement), the debris remaining from the wedding reception that never was (the beautiful Packing Up).

But what makes these poems really noteworthy is the way the author connects the microcosm of domestic life with the global reality of a Europe discovering its freedom in the years following World War 2. Mr Hoffman, a beautifully constructed modern sonnet, is a perfect example. Its concluding lines are pure domesticity, yet there is an urgency about its call to reconciliation:

"So, to respect the enemy we beat,
we went to Mr Hoffman for our meat."

The sense of brotherhood between former enemies is a strong theme throughout the collection. In A Small Village in Germany, Gilham rediscovers family links "long sundered, / our fathers and grandfathers pitched against theirs / in trenches, or in Normandy..." Unexpected kinships are also found in an old army field hospital (Ghosts), in "the flatness, the dampness, the melancholy" of the Flemish landscape (Herring Bone), and at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC (The Family Name).

Gilham's reflections on the legacy of a war fought 70 years ago have an extraordinary contemporary resonance. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Of Course, It Goes On, which for me is the high point of this collection. In the mundane little details of lives lived in defiance of tanks and terrorists, Gilham offers a timeless reflection in the tradition of the greatest war poetry:

"Out of the rubble we crawl with our violins,
our scraps of poetry, our cooking pots
and shopping bags; starting now
to rebuild what makes us human,
defying the teeth, the wolves of war."

This, declares Gilham, is "the affirmation: / this is how we say / that you who love war / cannot destroy us."

The stark difference between the Fosdyke cycle and the other poems in this collection make this book, for me, rather puzzling. The Fosdyke stories, by and large, are so utterly different to the more "poem-like" poems in style and subject matter that the two halves of the book sit rather uneasily together. I couldn't make up my mind whether this was a strength or a weakness of the collection. On the one hand, Fosdyke has an immediate accessibility which is likely to appeal to many who might be wary of shelling out for a conventional poetry collection. On the other, the quality of the poems in the second half of the book is such that I feel they really deserve a focus of their own.

The author provides a bridge, of sorts, in the mid-point of the collection with the very last piece in the Fosdyke cycle. A Dream of Fosdyke is a much more melancholy piece than its companions. It reads almost as a sort of inverse Dream of Gerontius:

"Poor Fosdyke, by whom I measured my own failures, precedes me now into the dark,
Already gone beyond the frustrations of consciousness..."

But there is light at the end of the tunnel:

"When I woke up I went down the pub with Fosdyke and we watched the 60th anniversary of Dunkirk, and Dad's Army, and England losing 5-nil to the Faeroe Islands on penalties.
We remembered how we won the 1966 World Cup,
And how we were in Soho after and we all loved the Germans and they loved us...
Then we sang and danced in Trafalgar Square until it got light and me and Fosdyke took the first tube home."

These glimpses of hope more than outweigh any rough edges around the earlier Fosdyke tales and make the whole collection a moving and compelling piece of work which repays reading again and again.

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