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Friday, December 30, 2011

An Clamhán

Codladh níor sáimhe riamh
ag an luch san aiteann amh

ná mar go tobann ar foluain
dó ós cionn an chuain

is mar bhog-cliabhán
aige ingne an chlamháin.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cat Head Theatre

On youtube I watch a short ‘Cat Head Theatre’ clip of Hamlet, in which an animated feline gives a passable performance as the Prince of Denmark. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz also feature, alternating between speaking their lines and chasing flies in the background. Cats are a large part of my life, and if called on to create a Cat Head Theatre clip of my own I know all too well both the play and the felines to which I would turn. The play would be Waiting for Godot and in the role of Vladimir I would cast Percy, sage and sleek, while Estragon would be his heavier and earthier helpmeet-brother Sam. Pozzo would be recreated (from beyond the grave) by our neighbours’ cat Rimmel, a large-bottomed and often bad-tempered beast still to be seen on Google Earth, where she perches on a recycling bin outside our front door. Lucky would be Hobo, a feline who died at the estimated age of 25 in 2011, but who up to very shortly before his death was still coming in through the flap to devour the treats and pouches with which he would be ceremoniously presented, for how could we refuse him anything, estimable old gent that he was. There was something of the toilet brush about his appearance in later life, it must be said, and to touch his fur was to be left with a peculiar amber-like residue, to be no more specific than that. The boy can be a cross-dressed Fifi, Rimmel’s equally fat-arsed replacement. As for Godot, he is Snowy, otherwise, Mr White, who sits in another neighbour’s window, stalks the tenfoot, appears suddenly and shockingly on downstairs windowsills, and on rare and treasured occasions appears in the kitchen. Being deaf, Mr White inhabits, I imagine, a profoundly solitary and private universe. He is perhaps the most elusively beautiful creature on the street. I go to the window and a cat is strolling among the bins. I go to the garden and another is lolling on the bench. I leave the house and another is on my step, and yet another sitting in a bush. Two of the cats I mentioned above are dead but this remains their place much more than mine. Hull will not have me alive or dead, but Hull is all these cats will ever need. For which reason it occurs to me there may be a problem with my choice of Waiting for Godot after all: these cats may appear to be waiting for something, but there is nothing they lack, nothing that could make their lives any more sheerly replete than they are.

'The Larkin Press'

A press has been launched in the name of the University of Hull’s well-known poet-librarian: The Larkin Press. Its first publication, Umber, can be read here.

From its introduction: ‘Here are a couple of facts to amaze you. This whole book was put together in a week. Yet the combined efforts, dreams, caring, imaginative powers, sleepless nights and blissful awakenings, words chased down and others crossed out, that whole messy and inspired business that fuels writings, add up to lifetimes.’

Further: ‘Part of becoming a writer is reading the work of others. (...) Hopefully this collection is also historic.’

The Larkin Press is funded by JISC and lists among its objectives: to ‘review existing open-source elements relevant to the platform’, to ‘ensure stakeholders have project buy-in’, to ‘carry out user participation and perception’ and to publish a ‘user perception study and interface design reflection.’


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bubonic Plague

The case of former paratrooper Christopher Alder was much in the news when I moved to Hull in 2000. He had died in police custody, and the arresting officers were tried for unlawful killing, allowing him to asphyxiate without coming to his aid; the case ended in an acquittal. There was a racial dimension too, with allegations of monkey noises having been made over Alder as he lay on the floor. Now eleven years later he is in the news Bagain as we learn that the body buried under his name in Western Cemetery, on Chanterlands Avenue, is not his after all but that of a female pensioner. The possibility of an exhumation is complicated by the fact that when the plot was last opened, it was to allow the scattering of his niece’s ashes over ‘his’ coffin. I know the cemetery well, as will anyone who has seen the 1964 Monitor film of Philip Larkin briskly cycling through it. In one overgrown corner is a mass grave for the Irish victims of a Victorian cholera epidemic, in another the elaborately inscribed headstone of Captain Gravill, captain of the Diana, the ill-fated last whaler to sail out of Hull, wrecked off Greenland in 1866. Not far up the road is Northern Cemetery, in whose children’s section I have spent lugubrious half-hours inspecting the teddy bears and balloons. In fact, the necropolises of Hull are all too well known to me: the Jewish cemeteries on St Ninian’s Walk and beside the Alexandra Hotel, the overgrown and fenced-off plots of Sculcoates, the city-margins reliquaries of Eastern Cemetery and its ‘columbarium’, in which I stumbled on the grave of a bubonic plague victim, died 1916. How does a Hull teenager catch bubonic plague in 1916? A bubo is a swollen gland, but a bubo bubo is an eagle owl, that splendid creature, an example of which used to live up the road from Eastern Cemetery in the village of Paull. I imagine the complex traceries of bone that must make up eagle owl pellets. Let each bone be numbered and identified. Vole, field-mouse, shrew. Let our remains too be mourned over according to our various rites, in our various graves: inscribed, communal, mistaken, nameless, unknown.


Level with a passing ship
and buried by sky, the flood plain shows
the tide a quivering top lip
of shallow soil between my house

and the soft clay banks I hardly trust.
Drip-fed back to gull and wader,
the fields will go and not be missed,
dry for now but underwater.

Though barn and spire may stand against
the heavens’ downward-plunging level,
here we are captive though unfenced.
Deliver us, Lord, not from evil

but, worse again, the solving blank
of a place where only postmen come,
and save for us when all has sunk
a tremor in the churchyard loam:

no resurrection of the flesh,
but our thin coffins shaken from
their moorings by the tidal wash,
plunging us past all roots and home.

(Sunk Island)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bridge for the Dying

Always it is by bridges that we die. Has anyone ever taken a moment, before hurling him or herself off the Humber Bridge, to recast the last line of the poem Larkin wrote for its opening in 1981? I come across a simple shrine on Hessle Foreshore, inscribed ‘We miss you Jeff’, and wonder whether Jeff is one of the 200 suicides who’ve gone over the side in its thirty-year history. I find a single shoe and wonder to whom it might belong if not another jumper. A woman travels from Stockport to Hull to jump, with her 12-year old son, who suffers from Fragile X, or Martin-Bell Syndrome. Not Martin Bell the poet, I presume. What might she have said to the taxi driver who took her there? ‘The pub by the bridge’, ‘the bridge’, ‘half way across the bridge...’? How would she have answered if he made small talk? Would she have tipped him, bid him a cheery ta-ra, so as not to arouse suspicion? Another mother and child jump, survive, and are pulled from the water. Someone else chooses to leap not into the water but onto the A63. That would be messy. And while I’m on the subject of suicides, a jumper’s last act, it has been noticed, is frequently to remove his or her glasses. Why? Obviously, they might get damaged on impact, but why the concern for the glasses? A local businessman walks across the river for charity, having carefully studied the charts of the sand banks under the surface of this strong brown god of a river. Sometimes these sand banks build up into islands such as Read’s Island slightly further down from the bridge, opposite the hamlet of South Ferriby and its gigantic cement works. How distant North Lincoln must have seemed before the bridge, when revellers would take the ferry by the Minerva Pub on a Sunday and qualify for a drink as bona-fide travellers. I think of the minor Romantic poet and hymn-writer Henry Kirke White, who writes in his diary of taking the Winteringham Packet through these waters ‘surrounded by a drove of 14 pigs, who raise the most hideous roar every time the boat rolls’. In South Ferriby itself I encounter a charming Russian blue cat named Babushka and ask the bar man at the Hope and Anchor whether it’s true that deer live on the island. Not that he’s ever seen, he answers, while clearly visible in the window behind his head a dozen white-rumped deer canter towards the island’s southern tip. But always in the background thrums the pulse of the traffic over the bridge. ‘Reaching that we may give /The best of what we are and hold as true’? The jumpers’ hands too must reach, in their brief, spectacular fall. That they may give what exactly? Whatever it might be, we will not number among the recipients. ‘Deeper than deep in joys without number’, as another Hull poet, Steve Smith, wrote, ‘The river Humber /turns to deeper slumber.’

Derek Mahon

Apologies for the gap in transmission. I had to see a man about a dog. Speaking of excuses, I heard a good one the other day about a student (not a student of mine). He couldn’t submit his course work for reasons or arson, he said; his books had been destroyed. And his evidence for this? A charge sheet detailing his conviction for arson.

While I haven’t been busy burning anything down, I have at least been writing about Derek Mahon’s New Collected Poems, at some length, here.