A sound cento for the fiftieth anniversary of Radio Three

I married a tinker’s daughter
in the town of Skibbereen
but at last one day she galloped away
with me only shirt in a paper bag
to the shores of Amerikay

Snug as a foot in a mocassin shoe
– never the boot no never the boot
I lay in Huck’s canoe
one still night
and heard men talking
– clean every word they spoke
on the ferry landing
like the Mississippi
was a narra crick
you could hear across
plum as a bell
– one man he reckoned
it was near three o’clock
he hoped daylight wouldn’t wait
more’n about a week longer
so there I lay a clockaclay
waitin for the time a’day

logs float down the Mississippi
logs float down the Mississippi
don’t let’s start
the whole caper or caber
don’t let’s ever grow up


not to roll out the Logos
– at least at the start
or say in the beginning
was the Word
– not to start with a lingo
with the lingo jingo of beginnings
unsheathed like a sword
stiff and blunt like a phallus
or masonic like a thumb
– not to begin then arma virumque
– plush Virgil
but to start with sound
the plumque sound of sense
the bite and the kick of it
– green chilli
white mooli radish
all crisp and pepper definite
– so my vegetable love did grow
vaster than pumpkins and more slow
for the sound of sense
is what the pretend farmer
– Farmer Frost that is
used call sentence sound
because a sentence he said
was a sound in itself
on which other sounds called words may be strung
which – never not quite iambic though –
is ten syllables that hang together – so
– just so
the way the elephant’s child
took seventeen melons
(the green crackly kind)
and said to all his dear families
‘Goodbye. I am going to the great
grey-green, greasy Limpopo river,
all set about with fever-trees,
to find out about what the Crocodile has for dinner’
just as Rikki-tikki
– Rikki-tikki-tavi
dates me in a carbon childhood
by this huge swollen river
all along a mill village
– soot bracken and stone
where Mrs Jubb
and Mr Jubb whose leathery right hand
had its thumb missing
– where they lived in a back to back
in a deep warm kitchen with a big kettle
like a pet
lived by the music of that bulgy river
that bulgy bulgy river
wider and deeper and slopping at the bank
ever and always ever and always
all those torn waters turning dark
in maybe October
as though the world itself had become bigger and wilder
than the world itself could ever be
because world is suddener than we fancy it
big with itself

now I know the source
– the elephant child
of the tram that tatty doubledecker
that stood out from the others
– blue and ice-cream white
or fire-engine red they were
– but the tatty one
that was the fever tram and it slid
sinister along the main the dangerous main road
at the bottom of Wensley Drive
in Leeds Yorkshire
in Leeds Yorkshire
– which is a change of sound accent place
so let me trawl and list
a couple or three sounds in my archive
– not the images
not the pictures
there must – because the ear
the ear is the only true reader –
there must be nothing seen or sighted
no moral message neither
no imperative
because out of the ocean of all sound
one little drop
two little drop
three little drop
shall come forth and fall back
as Rikki-tikki
that other the grey-green
greasy Limpopo river
the green crackly melons
and the snake eggs
– eggs with a skin not a shell
that’re buried in a melon bed
or a crack in a mud wall
where Rikki-tikki
is snacking
on the tops of the eggs
– this is like buried bakelite
the headphones on my crystal set
– or the set my strike-breaking uncle
built back in the Twenties
in the attic of 7 Deramore Drive
he set the aerial on a telegraph pole
in the garden of a house called Invergowrie
a house off the Malone Road
with tartan curtains – Robertson tartan –
and a lectric bell under the dining-room carpet
to call the maid
who’d left way back as surely as Louis MacNeice
alias Louis Malone had left
the city on the lough
and then had shuffled off this wiry copper coil
long before the city hit the news again

but it’s not the dring of that bell
I’d press so my granny’d think
it was the front door
it’s a woman – a jum –
– in an untidy room
its greasy cushions hookah
a few sweetmeats
– green pistachio
on a shiny tin plate
at the edge of a brass tray
the huge and shapeless woman
clad in greenish gauzes
and decked
brow nose ear neck wrist arm waist and ankle
with heavy native jewellery
when she turned
it was like the clashing of copper pots
– even she banged a bangle against the tray
when she lifted it to offer me
one of those green sweetmeats
a vein of the gospel proffer the grub the prog
– you know the cargo cult line
that dirty British coaster
its cheap tin trays
cheap tin trays
that’s the music speaks me
sings me
makes me
cheeps me
but it’s also the cheapo rings on a curtain pole
the way they clishclash too
– something greasy there
greasy or oily
a mixture of brass and unction
like a skitter of listless syllables
that makes me ask
what am I hearing?
what am I knowing?
as the woman – the jum –
in baggy pants
plumps the cushions back into shape
– again the slickslock of her bangles
those silk cushions
the sigh of Hindi being spoken
spoken and then sung
because it’s all surface like Matisse
odalisque Matisse
and I’m a child again
a child that reads and hears
but doesn’t understand
– who neither comprehends
this nor that
nor the silk sash my father never wore

before the heavens
before the silksack clouds were filled
with the clashing of swords
before I asked Brian Fearon
how much his bottle of orange
– his bottulornj cost?
and he said thhee dee

then showed me a little brass
little brass hexagonal
thrupenny bit
in the palm of his catholic hand
so I heard thhee
for the very first time
on the half between North
and South Parade
before ever I heard it come back in song
thhee black lumps
outa her wee shap
candy apples hard green pears
kanversation lazengers
which is all beginning
all beginning still
yet if I wanted to put a date
when this naked shivering self
began to puzzle at print sound
the wind in the reeds
or a cry in the street
I’d choose that room for a start
the bangles
the curtain rings
– it’s my baby tuckoo
tuckoo tuckoo it is
not the tundish
this is echt British
except that’s always fake somehow
it’s machinery means of production
not a spring well
– the well of Anglish
or the well of Oirish undefiled
for this isn’t when
but where it happened
where ice burned
and was but the more ice
and salted was my food and my repose
salted and sobered too by the bird’s call
the golden bird who perched
on his golden bough
to sing that ancient salt
is best packing
that all that is mortal of great Plato there
is stuck like chewed gum
in Tess’s hair
which happened – as it had to –
before ever I seen those tinned kippers
packed into boxes
on the quayside
in Cullercoats or Whitley Bay
and my great aunt
takes the penny ferry over the Tyne
and my English not my Scots granny
calls me hinny
and it feels
– that houyhnhnm whinny
of the north-east coast
almost like love and belonging
so I ask myself
why does Elaine Tweedie
say tarr not tar?
why do I glance down
at her skirt – yella’n’black tartan
skirt – when she says it?
what is it almost touching me
like skin warm skin?
I mean we live in two streets
off the same road
– the Ormeau Road
why should we say it different?
and why does my mother say modrun
not modern?
a modrun nuvel not a modern novel
a fánatic not a fanatic
which is a way of saying
this is my mother tongue
the gold torc
second time out
for out of Ireland have we sort of come
to find in a book called The Hamely Tongue
that the word jum
means a ‘large, unreliable trouble-giving car’
as well – it’s the dipstick talking –
as ‘a large, lazy and probably none too clean woman’
so did that word – the word jum
bob over the sheugh to Broagh
to the riverbroo
the mudshelf of the bank?
or is it Ulstermade?
would you puzzle me that one?
puzzle me proper
while I’m out after mackerel
in an open boat
– blue blue sky
after a skift of rain
the wet wondrous sky
stretched tight like a bubble

– hey Tammie Jack says
d’you see thon wind dog?
look yonder
– what’s a wind dog captain?
– ack a wee broken bitta rainbow
tha’s a wind dog

we were neither off Coney Island
nor floating down Cypress Avenoo
– we were out
in the Gweebarra Bay
so I say to myself Gweebarra
and drive westward
leaving the picky saltminers
of Carrickfergus behind
me and that lover
of women and Donegal
– ‘ack Louis poor Louis!’
was all Hammond’s aunt the bishop’s
housekeeper could say at the end
it was too looey late to tape her
she was too far gone
what with age and with drink
hardly a mile to go
before she shleeps
hardly a mile to go
before she shleeps
– there used to be such crack in that kitchen
her and the maid
always laughing and yarning the pair of them
and wee Louis in the room above
hearing the brangle of talk
rising through the floorboards

o chitterin chatterin platinum licht
the bow shall be in the clouds
and I will look upon it
to remember the everlasting testament
between God and all that liveth upon earth
whatsoever flesh or faith it be
– they may have turned Tyndale into tinder
but the bow he wrought lives high
in this wet blue sky

hardly a mile to go
through the deep deep snow
as I follow another poet’s
long shivering shadow
over the crumping snow
– not the journey out of Essex
nor the journey – yet –
out of Egypt
its chisel chipping stone
this is us walking snow
– its widewhite horizon dazzle
the soft quoof
and near crump of it
under our boots
their leather thin and soft
as mocassins
our feet cauld
crump crump crump we go
like break of day in the trenches
as our breath spoofs
in the frore air
soundlessly collateral
and incompatible

how cauld it is
out on air
for the very first time
but not as gross and crass
as the first studio in Belfast
its acoustic deadness
– every wall and bit of furniture muffled
not a shred of echo –
where a cheery good day
or – it’s Tyrone Guthrie talking –
a ringing roundelay
fell with a dull thud
into a sterilised blank
so two comedians’ backchat
it sounded like one mute
telling dirty stories
to another mute in an undertaker’s parlour
– so there was none
– it’s almost a daft term
like the name of a flower
– none of that ‘recorded ambience’
which means the putting back
of silence between sounds
so in the undertaker’s studio
there was none
of the living hum of silence
because silence
isn’t the absolute absence of sound
– that’s death
the undertaker’s parlour
silence is the barm the rise the yeast
– so never let those horny feet protood
just parle parle parle
go eat
banana nut ice-cream
in a parlour off Ormeau Avenoo
– it’s cauld but
like the battlements
on Elsinore
a nipping and an eager air
eager I suppose as in aigre
meaning vinegary bitter acid
meaning keen sharp
like the blade of a knife
no a knife-blade
– put a spondee boy
in place of the anapaest!
this is exposure
the here and the now
where we look round the muddy compound
– walls made of tin
or stone or brick
and soggy with sound
wet sound
where we feel
like sick to death almost
a generation
that has come so far
in darkness and in pain
that has heard the sound
– behold we have no continuing city
of gunfire
down streets and over fields
and rooftops
at the Giant’s Ring
Shipquay Street
the Ormeau and a thousand other
roads and streets and fields
round after round after round
– that has heard the sound
of culvert bomb upon culvert bomb
that plump and heavy sound
that tells us
– master of the still stars
never such innocence again
as it dumps and bumps and crumps
over the snow

near Swordy Well
there’s a frozen lane between stone walls
– high stone walls
our nailed boots wi clenching tread rebound
& dithering echo starts and mocks the clamping sound
– all the way
from the acoustic deadness of that studio in Linenhall Street
to the poet who died
in the same asylum as Lucia Joyce
– Yet what I am none cares or knows
my friends forsake me like a memory lost
I am the self-consumer of my woes
– all the way
to a brook in Northamptonshire
Were as one steps its oaken plank
The hollow frozen sounding noise
From flags & sedge beside the bank
The wild ducks brooding peace destroys

walking the plank
we turn the bridge into a thunderbox
– blocks of dead sound
drop bock bock bock
into the air
as though something formal and dreadful
is both happening and about to happen
on this wooden platform
– sound is always ahead of itself
– at least sound that has an echo
and a living skin of air
ambient air
around it
so sound is both Being and Becoming
like that river that bulgy river
where I walked with Mrs Jubb
one maybe October evening
in the third or fourth year
of this
my life

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences