Saturday, 22nd March, 2014

whitetieAs a child Tessimond’s father tried to interest him in classical music. Lessons at the piano, piccolo, flute, clarinet and French horn were all paid for, but none to much success. ‘The Gramophone,’ he reflects in his journal, ‘was my predestined instrument […] the instrument for the unpersevering.’

Throughout the 1920s he built a sizable collection of gramophone records, particularly HMV recordings; here’s one of them – Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians performing I Wonder How I Look When I’m Asleep. Tessimond writes of it:

It’s jolly good. I don’t know what the tune sounds like by itself, but the HMV version (with lots of “effects”, gagging, burlesque, etc.) is topping. In one part the man sounds as if he were singing through a glass of water – he does a marvellous gurgle on the first syllable of each “wonder.” And it brings in bits of Grieg’s “Dawn”, “All through the Night,” and “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep”.

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Wednesday, 12th June, 2013

While working through Dawson Jackson’s papers last year I came upon a draft of, and correspondence relating to, a book which he published under an assumed name in 1949. As assumed names feature quite prominently in my research on Jackson’s close friend A.S.J. Tessimond, I made a note to look this book out. I managed to buy a copy (they are rare, though not unobtainable), but it is only now that I have got round to reading it.

The book – From This Foundation under his pseudonym ‘Thomas Brackley’ (London: Harvill, 1949) – is a long narrative description of an medium-sized English town. It has echoes of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier in its attempts to document the lives and living conditions of everyday people, but resonates also with Coming Up For Air, or William Golding’s The Pyramid, in the rapid sense of change affecting the lives of the town’s inhabitants. It is, as the author describes it in the opening chapter, ‘not a novel and has no plot or main character’ but, much like George Crabbe’s The Borough, each chapter relates the lives of a different group of inhabitants – and this within the broader framework of the seasonal shifts throughout a year.

As with most of Jackson’s writing, there is tremendous warmth here; it is a kind of sociology born out of love. Here, towards the end of the book, in a chapter that ostensibly is written to consider how the elderly are taken care of, is a wonderful (though not uncritical) portrait of a woman reaching the end of her life:

A moss of small objects grows over everything. Wraps, sewing baskets, small piles of books and letters, glasses of water, medicine tins. If anyone sets them in order they will grow back as they were again. It is the same inside the drawers. Mrs Forrester is a maker of mouse’s nests. No particular type of thing is kept in any particular drawer. Everything is kept in every drawer: clothes, valuable silver sugar castors, pills, shoes and hair-pins, and dozens of packs of patience cards. She never has a pack of cards, and when she needs one she goes out and buys; putting it away in a drawer. As this may be any drawer it is usually not found again. It is the same with stockings. Her daughter, when appealed to, brings coupons to buy her mother some, and finds twenty pairs, mostly in a bottom drawer never opened, and all quite whole, since the lady never much moves her feet. The forgetting is partly but not wholly due to age. In the old days sixty jugs were once found in the house, and none of them might be used for milk. She hoards instinctively to withstand the siege of life—and the relation between her and it is one of siege, for she never gives anything back. Occasionally her memory is retentive. She will remember and describe exactly where so-and-so’s photograph is, at the back of the third drawer down on the right in the old oak bureau, where she put it in her house before last. Drawers for her are permanent shelves in the universe, never moved or sorted, like the larder passages in a rodent’s burrow underground. They are part of her own inner life, which is her reality, and all she believes in, for she is just tolerant towards, amused, frightened and indignant at the rest.

This attention to detail is striking and typical of the book, but it is also the utter seriousness with which Jackson locates this woman’s obscure act, and deems it as worthy of consideration as any other. Hoarding as a way of understanding the self – of understanding the universe – is no less important than the sincerest philosophy.

Tuesday, 28th May, 2013

pearls

I wasn’t called up until the second, third or fourth year of the war. When my call-up came I ignored it. I argued that a neurotic coward like me would be more a hindrance than help to the armed forces. And a life without privacy would be like going back to a public school.

I lay low, became a deserter. I changed my name, became Peter Black. But to the Gas Board I was J. Emersley, which might pass for J. Amberley written illegibly. (When I pay my gas bills I’m still J. Emersley so I pay it in cash.) And these were the days of Identity Cards, and on your Identity Card your name was your name, yes a name: unalterable.

The quote above is taken from the unpublished journal of A.S.J. Tessimond. I’ve written about the poet’s use of pseudonyms elsewhere, but there is another aspect of this anecdote that I feel needs further exploration, and that (surprisingly) is the poet’s relationship with the Gas Board.

Bear with me.

You see, it appears (I’m fairly sure of this) that at some point during the 1950s, Tessimond’s gas fire in some way broke. It was certainly old – a friend refers to it as ‘obsolete’ – and the above quotation makes clear a somewhat unusual relationship with a utility company. From what I can tell, Tessimond found himself unable to have the appliance fixed, or repaired, owing to his deception. By the time that section of the journal was written, the war had been over for around fifteen years, and it strikes me that it wouldn’t have been impossible for him to amend the name on the bill.

But I think the decision not to rectify the issue represents something else, and that is the role that the Gas Board played in his life – and perhaps more broadly speaking, the role that gas-fires played in altering the lives of people in the twentieth century. If I wished to make a grand statement about this (and to be honest, I don’t – I’m just kicking around a couple of half thought through ideas here) I would say that in the early twentieth century, the gas-fire directly led to an increase in social deviance, particularly amongst upper-working, and lower-middle class, urban, single males.

That’s a view just waiting to be shot to pieces, but my (flimsy) argument is this – gas-fires seem to have been taken up particularly in tenement accommodation and other multiple-occupancy buildings. The great advantage that the gas-fire had was its cleanliness; for this group of people it meant that there was no longer the need for the daily visit of the charwoman, meaning that flats could for the first time become completely private spaces in which arcane pleasures could freely be explored: the collection of erotic postcards, for instance, or homosexual desires, or murder – to name but a few.

The gas-fire became a means of solitary life, and as such, became an emblem of this in the literature of the early twentieth century. The only intrusion into this private space, might be the unrequested intervention of the Gas Board. In Tessimond’s poem ‘Letter from Luton’, the Gasworks almost seems like the hand of God, gripping him in a strangle-hold. It is upon ‘the breezes | From Luton Gasworks comes a stench that closes | Like a damp frigid hand on my neurosis’. The Gasworks is the ultimate fear over all – worse even than the neurotic fear of ‘red-eyed necrophiles’ in the poem. A similar view is put forward in John Rodker’s poem ‘Gas Fire’ (1920):

The sparse blue flame
pulses and pours
through salamander asbestos,
annulated like arteries—
Like a seraph’s blood
…..[when he sees the sylph]
rushes fast and faster
and whelms in white fire.

Or—like an earthworm
pulsing a thin lymph.

Or like a message
through nerves hid in vertebræ.

The sparse blue flame purrs,
hastens—pauses again—
purrs loudly, gently… hissing
forced from what outer spheres;
god         the gasometer.

But elsewhere in the literature of the period, the everyday appliance of the gas-fire forms an near alter-like form upon which the lonely may worship. It is a much-used image for Patrick Hamilton, who uses it to mark Julia’s solitude in Twopence Coloured (1928) and in Hangover Square (1941) refers to ‘the altar of a gas-fire in Earl’s Court’, elsewhere in the novel writing:

On countless occasions he had seen her like this, staring into her gas-fire at seven o’clock, waiting to go out and get lit up again. That gas-fire – what sinister bleak misery emanated from its sighing throat and red, glowing asbestos cells! To those whom God has forsaken, is given a gas fire in Earl’s Court.

God, the gasometer, bestows the gas-fire to those he has foresaken. This idea is similarly to be found in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936) where, before the gas-fire, foresaken and lonely Julia sits sewing by night, or lighting it only for her visiting brother:

There was a divan bed that could very nearly be mistaken for a sofa, and a little round fumed oak table, and two ‘antique’ hardwood chairs, and an ornamental footstool and a chintz-covered armchair — Drage’s: thirteen monthly payments — in front of the tiny gas-fire; and there were various brackets with framed photos of father and mother and Gordon and Aunt Angela, and a birchwood calendar — somebody’s Christmas present — with ‘It’s a long lane that has no turning’ done on it in pokerwork. Julia depressed Gordon horribly. He was always telling himself that he ought to go and see her oftener; but in practice he never went near her except to ‘borrow’ money.

This connection between the gas-fire and loneliness recurs through a number of texts of the period, and I think it’s fair to say that it is a literary association rather than the view of the average home-owner. Few can have looked at the ‘sparse blue flame’ pulsing through the asbestos grate and considered it to be the cause of their loneliness, robbing them of the visit from coal-man and charwoman – providing them with just enough heat for a visiting brother, but no more – and this, I think crucially: measuring out the supply of heat, allowing it to be turned off completely, meant that the hearth was no longer the image of constant warmth (the heart, as it is often rendered in nineteenth century literature) in the home.

Yet here, in a 1943 Mass Observation report into psychological factors in home-building, it is the independent means provided by such a device which one anonymous respondent identifies when asked ‘What does HOME mean to you?’

It must be comfortable, particularly as regards warmth in the winter and facilities for cooking. A bed-sitting room with a gas fire that will also cook, a divan, a chair and a few books make a perfectly good home for one.

The description here is practical, but love and familial warmth is not supposed to be practical. This inventory is not much different to the contents of Tessimond’s own room, and it is marked that the fire renders ‘a perfectly good home for one’ but no more. However the gas-fire is not without romance, as demonstrated here in Stevie Smith’s poem ‘The Persian’:

The gas fire
Seemed quite a friend
Such a funny little humming noise it made
And it had a name, too, carved on it you know,
‘The Persian’. The Persian!
Ha ha ha; ha ha.

Now Agnes, pull yourself together.
You and your friends.

Here, the appliance takes the form of a Romantic hero who is ‘quite a friend’ to Agnes, but descends into the hysteria of laughing gas. It perhaps seems less lonely than the other representations of gas-fires; the narrator reprimands Agnes and ‘your friends’ in the final line, suggesting that she is perhaps not alone, but there is also the suggestion that if the gas fire ‘seemed quite a friend’ then perhaps all these others may be inanimate objects as well. The advertisement for ‘The Persian’ gas-fire, whilst promoting an application in the social setting of nurseries, also makes clear its means for independent living, with its ‘side boiling burner’ – ‘a gas fire that will also cook […] make a perfectly good home for one’:

Advertisement including 'The New Persian Gas Fire' from The Times, Wednesday, 31st October, 1923

Advertisement including ‘The New Persian Gas Fire’ from The Times, Wednesday, 31st October, 1923

For Tessimond, though, the fire became an obstacle (as indeed love became an obstacle for him) – unfixable without the outside world penetrating his inner-space. It needn’t have been this way. As he wrote about his broken fire, elsewhere in Joubert Mansions where he lived – possibly in the flat directly above Tessimond’s own – the cookery writer Magda Joicey was penning her book Cookery without a Kitchen (1958) instructing single-occupancy dwellers in how to ‘throw a party in the limited space at your command’. The Stuffed Prunes and Cocktail Savoury, had the advantage that you didn’t even need the gas to be connected.

Monday, 24th December, 2012

king

The problem of the literary legacy, and the reputation of the ‘lesser artist’, is never far away in my work on Tessimond. Why some writers prevail and others disappear, is a question that must stalk any discussion of literary biography. Why indeed should our attention be turned to this specific name and not another? But why a writer at all? Why do we not remember the lives of our mill-workers or school-teachers?

‘I think’ wrote Keats, ‘I shall be among the English Poets after my death’ – well, quite, but then how many other writers have hoped the same thing? ‘The cold-blood committal | of the heart’s pangs | to documents’ (Tessimond, ‘Authorship’) isn’t in itself enough, no matter how meaningful the action might be, ‘the transcription of the soul | in public’ whilst brave, is no justification for that transcription to be read.

This is a subject which Tessimond’s friend, the editor of the London Mercury, J.C. Squire took up in an essay of 1930:

I have been reading an author unduly neglected. There are many. Our literature is full of minor classics which from time to time are galvanised into life by new editions, and then relapse into almost complete oblivion, a few bookish people cherishing them and no one else mentioning them. These resent the neglect. They feel that injustice is being done if a favourite book is omitted from histories of literature or is unknown to people who would appreciate it. And there is no doubt that the injustice is felt as an injustice to the author personally, though he may be long dead and unaware of men’s speech and their silence. This feeling springs unconsciously, perhaps, from the knowledge that if a man writes a good book one of his main motives, almost always, is posthumous fame.

J.C. Squire, ‘Fame after Death’, Life at the Mermaid, p. 245

Squire, now perhaps, a writer less-read even than Tessimond, was in his lifetime a figure of much importance.

In the past week or so, for reasons I won’t dwell upon, I have been forced to consider the legacy of another of Tessimond’s friends – George Rostrevor Hamilton. I’m not going to make any great claim that we should still read Hamilton’s work, but he is a voice of the 1930s that interests me. Without wading through a great deal of unnecessary biography (and this may be his point – biography is, if not unnecessary, then often unreachable and often wholly other and incomparable to a life’s work) his background and career are fascinatingly positioned in the literary landscape of the period.

A long poem of 1935, ‘Sir Jordan Banks’ questions this very issue of life and reputation. It may well be the first mention in verse of a ‘blue plaque’, those much-loved heritage roundels which scatter our cities like ceramic graffiti – “HERMAN MELVILLE WOS ’ERE 1849” – informing us of the (often fleeting) residencies of people we have little knowledge or opinion of. Why does it matter to know that Dickens once lived in a house near to where the British Medical Association now stands in Tavistock Square? Where we live certainly has a massive impact on our lives, but does squinting from the pavement really give us any great insight into what took place behind that door years before we were born? This, is the subject of Hamilton’s poem, ‘Sir Jordan Banks’:

The autumn sun slips down the weathered bricks
Of empty Marlowe Square. The last rays fall
Across the oval tablet on the wall
Of Number 3 —
The house you’re told to see—
Making the legend clear
“Sir Jordan Banks, Economist, lived here
From 1875 to ’86.”

You learn from the guide-book how Sir Jordan spent
Day after day over his labours bent;
How he forsook
All pleasure, exercise and recreation;
How in the third-floor bedroom every night
He burned till 2 a.m. (at least) his light,
Preparing that great book,
So sane, so sound,
So unimpassioned yet profound,
On “Economics and The Population”:
And then, in ’84, completion—fame!
How Tennyson and Mr. Gladstone came
To offer him sincere congratulation,
And how the Queen herself
Wrote that she would place the volumes on her shelf.

But in the house,
And up the spiral stair,
Only the shadows fall
Now, no footfall.
And here, in the bed-room
Sir Jordan’s bed-room,
Only a gradual gloom.

The narration of the poem, addressed to the casual tourist of the present, moves from this interior space where dust ‘blanches’ and ‘light fades’, through time to the 1880s where Sir Jordan sits writing and raising two sons, allowing the voices of the past to speak within the poem. The relationship between the house and the man in never in question; his room – which sometimes seems as a prison to Sir Jordan – is, he reflects ‘a part of me’. Yet what is called into question is the purpose of the tourist’s visit, the purpose of preserving the knowledge of the economist’s 2am finishes – when none of this can truly be known or understood.

Perhaps most striking in this discrepancy between the private life and public work is when Sir Jordan’s wife (never mentioned in the guidebook) is given voice within the poem:

And here Sir Jordan Banks
Till 2 a.m..
Sometimes indeed until the sun had risen,
Night after night
That great economist
Over his labours bent;
Worked out his graphs;
Wrestled with Adam Smith and Stuart Mill,
Until
At last the nation’s thanks!
At last—

Him only do I love,
Waiting here
For him, for the sound of his feet on the stair.
For him only does my body tremble,
Lying in bed,
Trembles, and my heart beats
With hope I must dissemble;
That he will be surprised again
To find my nakedness so slim,
Hoops and flounces laid aside,
Delicately scented for him,
So little.
Ah pain!
That was once, and his love died.

Significantly, his wife’s words are unattributed in the poem, whereas the economist’s manly ‘wrestle’ with Adam Smith and Stuart Mill is what goes recorded. This image of the naked wife, waiting alone ‘so slim’ with her outer clothing removed is a stark image of a society’s values that will name and remember ‘great men’ but ignore those who do not meet that criteria. This is the theme of another of Hamilton’s poems ‘Unknown Lovers’ which offers an elegy to those not given named tombstones in London’s churchyards.

In ‘Sir Jordan Banks’ the mind of the economist tallies each departing soul by the votives offered at their death:

A million candles counting each for one,
Each one the same.
They’re finished, done,
All entered in a register.
But who’s put out the flame?
Oh, Death is quite impersonal.

Our acts and justification of memorial are often misguided – ‘death is quite impersonal’ but we make it personal by selective necromancy. In the vast extent of cities – in the vastness of humanity – we elect a few to save but many, many more to ignore because they do not fit the image we would like to have of ourselves.

What is of interest in the Square,
With its Queen Anne houses, it’s time-weathered bricks?
This—Number 3—
Is the house you must see:
Sir Jordan Banks, Economist, lived here
From 1875 to ’86.

Saturday, 22nd September, 2012

This is something of a long-shot, but so far this blog has turned up people who knew the poet Dawson Jackson, so the following might have some success.

I am wanting to find further information on the actress Lynn Shaw (sometimes ‘Lyn Shaw’) who also went by the name of ‘Jacqualine Bannister’ or ‘Jackie Bannister’, and who was known to the poet A.S.J. Tessimond.

From the poet’s journal and correspondence, it’s clear that she had a very important role in the Tessimond’s life, and they appear to have remained friends from around 1956 until his death in 1962. She was, for a time, a chorus girl at the Windmill Theatre, and a fairly popular pin-up of the 1950s. There were some small film parts, most notably playing Andreina in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il Grido (1957), as well as appearing alongside Joan Sims in the 1956 British comedy Keep it Clean.

Lynn, or Jacqualine – neither of which may have been her real name – was Italian, and lived in Milan, Rome and London during this period. I’m eager to find out what happened to her from 1962 onwards.

Sunday, 13th May, 2012

As it’s the 50th anniversary of Tessimond’s death today, I wanted to post one more poem. I’ve been writing about him today, particularly about his somewhat unlikely love life. Biographically, it’d be easy to suggest that Tessimond didn’t understand relationships at all – this is a man who thought nothing of buying a plane ticket to Jamaica in order to find a woman he had never met, that he had fallen in love with, after seeing a poster for bananas; that the long succession of sexless relationships with prostitutes and nightclub hostesses seemed unlikely ever to have worked.

But I think this misses the point entirely. Tessimond understood love better than many people; understood the slow process by which we get to know another person. We do him, and indeed the nightclub hostesses, a disservice if we think that these relationships were not meaningful, important, tender.

‘Meeting, first published in the 1934 collection ‘The Walls of Glass’, describes just that. It appears at first to be comic anthropomorphism, though Tessimond set little store by that (‘A smiling dog’s the illusion | And wish-fulfilment of it’s owner’ – ‘Saving Grace’) but what it reaches is something powerful and wonderfully real.

Meeting

Dogs take new friends abruptly and by smell.
Cats’ meetings are neat, tactual, caressive.
Monkeys exchange their fleas before they speak.
Snakes, no doubt, coil by coil reach mutual knowledge.

We then, at first encounter, should be silent;
Not court the cortex but the epidermis;
Not work from the inside out but outside in;
Discover each other’s flesh, its scent and texture;
Familiarize the sinews and the nerve-ends,
The hands, the hair–before the inept lips open.

Instead of which we are resonant, explicit.
Our words like windows intercept our meaning.
Our four eyes fence and flinch and awkwardly
Wince into shadow, slide oblique to ambush.
Hands stir, retract. The pulse is insulated.
Blood is turned inwards, lonely; skin unhappy…
While always under all, but interrupted,
Antennæ stretch… waver… and almost… touch.

I’ve written a bit more about Tessimond here, and details of a forthcoming lecture I’m giving at The Walker Gallery in Liverpool are here.

Friday, 11th May, 2012

“A Person Come to Look at Pictures”: Tessimond at the Walker

Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL

Dr James Bainbridge
Thursday 17 May 2012, 1-2 pm [Revised date]

In this fiftieth anniversary year of the death of the Birkenhead-born poet A.S.J. Tessimond we will explore his work revealing his friendship and collaboration with the artist Ceri Richards. Looking at Richards’ Mother and Child in the Walker collection and an unpublished long poem An A to Z of Advertising, this lecture presents a vivid portrait of the poet’s later years. CRN 16909

To book a place at these lectures, phone 0151 794 6900 or email conted@liv.ac.uk quoting the course reference number.

Friday, 11th May, 2012

Sunday 13th May, 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond.

The fact that you are reading this page, probably suggests that you have some awareness of Tessimond’s work – though the fact that your chosen search engine has led you here, is also an indication of how little is now known about the poet. In those fifty years since his death, almost all trace of A.S.J. Tessimond has disappeared.

Tessimond has joined the ranks of the lesser-known poets. A poet who certainly deserves our attention – who in his own lifetime was hugely popular – but who now is perhaps only known to a few. I want to briefly explore how that might have come about…

Read More…

Wednesday, 4th April, 2012

Tessimond Lectures, 2012

May this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond on whom I am currently writing a biography. To mark the event I will be giving a couple of free public lectures in the Liverpool area based on new research into both his life and his poetry. I also have an article on Tessimond in the current issue of The Reader magazine.

Lecture details:

Not art but Life: A.S.J Tessimond and the visual arts

Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight Village, Wirral, CH62 5EQ

Dr James Bainbridge
Thursday 26 April at 2-3 pm

In the fiftieth year since his death, we will re-examine the work of the poet A.S.J. Tessimond who was born in Birkenhead in 1902. Popular in his own lifetime, his poetry has recently come back into print. Very little has been known about the man until now, but using new research this lecture explores for the first time the writer’s interest in art, poetry, and his life on the Wirral in the 1920s. CRN 16908

 “A Person Come to Look at Pictures”: Tessimond at the Walker

Walker Art Gallery, William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL

Dr James Bainbridge
Thursday 17 May 2012, 1-2 pm [Revised date]

In this fiftieth anniversary year of the death of the Birkenhead-born poet A.S.J. Tessimond we will explore his work revealing his friendship and collaboration with the artist Ceri Richards. Looking at Richards’ Mother and Child in the Walker collection and an unpublished long poem An A to Z of Advertising, this lecture presents a vivid portrait of the poet’s later years. CRN 16909

To book a place at these lectures, phone 0151 794 6900 or email conted@liv.ac.uk quoting the course reference number.

Thursday, 5th January, 2012

I have arrived at Dawson Jackson by what seems the wrong branch line. This is not an uncommon situation; often in reading, things that first appear to be footnotes emerge as subjects in their own right. Walter Scott had the right idea about this – ever-expanding volumes – Richardson, too. I suspect that both would have revelled in the digital age.

In any case: the poet Dawson Jackson.

The route by which I have reached him is this: in writing the biography of A.S.J. Tessimond, I have come across Jackson as someone that Tessimond knew. Mainly he knew Jackson’s wife, Joan Hart, a recording artist for the BBC. Shortly before he died he entrusted carbon copies of his diary with Joan before destroying the original manuscript. All this will out in the book.

Jackson was a poet in his own right. In some ways, during his lifetime, he was not a particularly well-regarded poet – Stephen Spender, whilst sympathetic, wrote to him of his verse that whilst ‘very readable and amusing. I suppose it is difficult to get a publisher to regard this as “poetry”, because the matter and form are not very poetic.’ But in many ways, I think Jackson was slightly ahead of the game. That said, he was not to Tessimond’s taste either. My edition of his collection Darkness and Spring (1971) is inscribed by Jackson to Jean Cooper (another name in Tessimond’s life story); there he writes: ‘on account of John Tessimond / who / for all his enthusiasm and politeness / could never quite see / why / I stopped my lines where I did!’

The two poets probably stand at opposite ends of a spectrum (if such a thing could be imagined) of twentieth century English poetry. They were both born in the Liverpool region, Tessimond in Birkenhead in 1902, Jackson in Wallasey in 1910. Jackson, I am certain, cared a lot for Tessimond and after his death attempted to make sense of the journal manuscripts (no mean feat, as I have discovered) and aided Hubert Nicholson in handling the poet’s affairs in the years after 1962.

But Jackson needs examining in his own right – Carcanet have a Selected Poems in print; it is worth looking out. Stylistically he is nothing like Tessimond, though there is a shared warmth and humanity in their writing.

Every year I rather forlornly suggest to my undergraduate classes that one of them might attempt some kind of survey of cultural representations of Underground rail travel. Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Paris Metro’ through to Geoff Ryman’s 253 calling at Henry Moore, Iris Murdoch, Patrick Hamilton, Julian Barnes and The Bed Sitting Room (amongst others). Nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.

But here is a wonderful poem by Dawson Jackson that I have quite fallen in love with and should be part of such a study. It is from Darkness and the Spring. It is called ‘Fifty Years Between’:

1

They are, together, as

Pretty as two primroses: bicker

…………..

Like two squabbling

Small birds, in a

Private language: he curving

…………..

Himself round her like

An enjoying

Tongue; and she sparkling

Back at him – dark water that

…………..

The sun strikes.

…………..

2

Coming up

The escalator of the Tube

Were a man and woman, in their

Seventies at least. She,

…………..

Unaccustomed to them, did not

Like the stairs. Perhaps, too, he

Did not: erect, slight, military,

With a neat moustache. However,

…………..

He stood before her and – uncertain on his

Own feet – helped

Her, with an arm, step

Off. He could not have been

…………..

More courteous had he been

A young boy, well brought up, with

His first – Edwardian –

Young woman. And she –

…………..

Thanking him, accepting the

Attention – was everything that is

Delicate, spiritedly

Compliant, feminine. They must have

…………..

Been married

Fifty years. Sex

…………..

In old age is

Sex – as it has been

From the cradle:

Delightful. Paper thin

…………..

Like petals – they were, together, that

Flower still: which

Does not die

…………..

Till we do.

There is a great deal I could say about that poem, but the main thing is: I love it. Though Tessimond mistrusted the enjambement in Jackson’s poetry, the line endings are crucial; the weight given to ‘Sex’ as it hangs before the break, seemingly at odds with the ‘Fifty years’ of marriage (though, as we discover, not so) makes the thing work.

In the woman’s ‘unaccustomed’ response to the stairs, I am reminded of the delightful anecdote in David Kynaston’s Family Britain that Winston Churchill’s favourite item in the Festival of Britain was the escalator up to the planetarium, which he insisted on riding over and over. The rest of London having grown used to escalators through the Tube, Churchill, who tended to use taxis, was entirely new to the concept.

The poem is amazingly sensual; the ‘enjoying tongue’ is both tenderly protective ‘curving […] round her’ but also immediately erotic. Eroticism is commonplace; the flower that does not die until we do. There is something of Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’ here too, though it’s too late at night for me to explore that now, and before I close I want to draw Tessimond back into this post with his poem ‘Tube Station’. An early piece, it’s not his best work – heavily influenced by Pound and Imagism in general – but it’s a good little thing, with a very different erotic quality in its own right:

 The tube lift mounts,

…………..sap in a stem,

and blossoms its load,

…………..a black, untidy rose.

 …………..

…………..

The fountain of the escalator

…………..curls at the crest,

……………………….breaks and scatters

A winnow of men,

…………..a sickle of dark spray.

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