Oldham

Frank Kermode

  • The Reign of Sparrows by Roy Fuller
    London Magazine Editions, 69 pp, £3.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 904388 29 8
  • Souvenirs by Roy Fuller
    London Magazine Editions, 191 pp, £4.95, February 1980, ISBN 0 904388 30 1

Forty years ago, Roy Fuller was taking a close look at himself and finding the image unsatisfying, already a little disappointed.

This one is remembered for a lyric.
His place and period – nothing could be duller.

In his new book of poems there is one called ‘On Birkett Marshall’s Rare Poems of the 17th Century’:

Coppinger, Pordage, Collop, Fayne,
Fettiplace, Farley, Chamberlain –
They could be the darling poets of my youth:
I almost search among the names for mine ...

Three hundred years ago they were consoled
For lack of genius and fame by some

Astonishing trope or stanza’s tailoring.
Strange that the consolation still should work

 Prujean, ‘Ephelia’, Cutts, Cockayne,
Cameron, Allott, Fuller, Raine

And in the very considerable body of verse he has produced in between there are a good many poems tinctured by the same kind of self-justifying self-deprecation. He very soon ceased to make tremendous statements, preferring on the whole to notice whatever seems to deserve that favourite epithet ‘odd’, and to meditate on the trouvaille. The Middle of the War carries on its rough, browning wartime pages lines that almost anybody might have written at the time on the first page: ‘the enormous finger of the gun’. But there are others that suggest a more characteristic insight: ‘ruins are implicit in every structure.’ It is an insight proper to its date, but wittier than it first appears. The implicit is Fuller’s special interest, and it goes with a sense that poetry, working on it, will not quite destroy it; it makes the visible a little hard to see, as Wallace Stevens, early admired by Fuller, once remarked. Or, in another favourite Fuller locution, it ought to be not unimplicit, which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be clear.

I particularly like a poem in Buff, the volume of 1965, about a little girl:

 there’s a suggestion of the primitive
In her physical anthropology – the span
Of the stance and the residual stagger; too
Stubby the velvet legs, and the lovely head
Over-large ...

It goes on to celebrate the child’s marvellous moving out of infantile jargoning into language (‘Odd, all the same, that we find her genius/In doing badly what all do pretty well’). But the jargon, the milky vocables, was not only that in which language was implicit: it is also what remains, like something that remains behind explicit poems.

The best part of my life is bringing out
Jargon with words – but how minute a part,
Since ordered language is most loath to admit
The excited dream-soaked gibberish of its start.
Therefore must be preserved, if possible.
A struggler with the uncommunicable.
A chanter of enchantment, underneath
The honoured inventor of a unified
Field theory or detector of gravitons
Or prince’s perfectly proportioned bride.

In another poem he put the antithesis clearly as between ‘the neat completed work’ and what it might be better to leave to posterity:

The words on book marks, enigmatic notes,
Thoughts before sleep ...

It is almost as if the need to be explicit reduced the poetry and made it ‘minor’ in relation to poems more obscure and tremendous. But respect for the implicit and a desire to be decently communicative are, for good or ill, the poles on which the world of this poet turns.

Sometimes it helps one’s inquiries into the implicit to move a little away from being simply oneself. Or, as Fuller once remarked, it ‘probably happens to most poets as they grow older that their personal experiences are less immediate and varied, and therefore they are inclined to assume personae which don’t properly belong to them.’ However, as he added with customary scruple, ‘one wouldn’t assume [a particular mask] unless one personally felt that this was an appropriate-mask to put on.’ Of late years, conscientiously minor in relation to Yeats’s brassy major, he assumes the persona not of a Wild Old Man but of a Sad Though Sharp-Witted Old Buffer. This person speaks many of the poems in The Reign of Sparrows. He was indeed implicit in that young fellow who looked disappointedly at himself in the middle of the war, expecting only a modicum of fame, perhaps the Pordage of his day. The old chap collects his pension, tends his garden, and, quite rightly, finds intimations of mortality in almost everything. But he remains very sharp. Long ago the first novelist to note the peculiar smell of a newly-turned-on electric fire, he now becomes, I daresay, the first poet to notice a funny thing about shrimps:

Shrimps and their shadows on the contoured sand
Of the shallows: oddly, the shadows more apparent ...

‘Oddly’ because it suggests something other; the poem will not quite say what that is, though it establishes an otherness.

The old man, in one of his manifestations, reports a letter from his teacher which says that when we grow old we lose the sense of here and now:

          ‘one’s as it were transposed
Into infinity, more or less alone,
No longer with hopes or fears, only observing.’
That’s how I feel, though much less stoical!

Even that last line is not spoken in the poet’s proper person, but it was presumably an appropriate mask to put on. A niggling alarm about the approach of death, a sense of minor terminal disappointment, belong both to mask and wearer. A shoe salesman unconsciously puns in German: ‘I’m afraid it’s your welt that’s gone.’ Kids kiss on the bus; the poet sneers and returns to his obituary column. One poem is called ‘In His 65th Year’, another, modelled on ‘Rugby Chapel’, is ‘On His 65th Birthday’ and starts out at the Mini-Town Hall where with others he queues for the ‘baksheesh of the State’. It is quite without the pensive uplift of Arnold, being less interested in moving on to the City of God than in remaining as long as possible in the ‘Philistine world’.

This deliberate, carefully qualified bathos is not without its own un-Arnoldian charm, and will be especially attractive to readers who are themselves on the point of trying out for the part of Old Buffer. They will also enjoy Souvenirs. The title alludes to an ancient pop song – ‘You’ve left a broken heart among my souvenirs’ – as old buffers will recognise. I do not say that Souvenirs will not exercise its antiquarian charms on the younger generation, but the best readers will be those who can unhesitatingly answer questions of the following kind: Who was Horatio Nicholls? Lya de Putti? Wilkie Bard? Muriel George and Ernest Butcher? Can you at once sing the opening bars of ‘Shepherd of the Hills’ and ‘The Sheik of Araby’? Or ‘Horsie, keep your tail up’ and ‘Does the Spearmint lose its flavour on the bedstead over night’? Did you play the book-list game (The Tiger’s Revenge by Claude R. Sole, The Passionate Lover by E. Tudor Tittiov)? Did you have a relation who said, ‘Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you,’ or, more idiosyncratically, something like ‘Dearie me the day!’? Were your tonsils extracted on a scrubbed kitchen table? Are you pre-orthodontic?

If, like the present reviewer, you find these questions easy and could do the exam at a higher level, you will enjoy this book not as an account of the inexplicably odd childhood of a famous poet, but as a reminder of a culture which spawned a good proportion of contemporary intellectual bufferdom. Fuller distances it by introducing little bursts of Powellish syntactical virtuosity – as in the model, they don’t always quite work – and a number of wrily posh words like ‘rugeous’, ‘edentulousness’ and ‘obstipated’, all looking odd against a background of plain sad prose: but his pleasure in the souvenirs is unmistakable and also communicable.

The book is not a chronological account of the poet’s youth but a ‘set of variations’ on themes proposed by a memory often self-deprecatingly described as cold and faulty, guilty of ‘blanks and blunders’, ‘morbidly defective’ – and not only in respect of what one would prefer not to remember, though adolescent randiness is not exactly foregrounded. A keener memory, we are given to understand, would have been used to improve the registration of ‘the material reality of life’ in the poet’s novels, rather than on profounder Proustian evocations. Yet we are given a view of the poet’s youth in Oldham and particularly in Blackpool, where everybody knew who Horatio Nicholls and Wilkie Bard were; of a mother able to support herself, though a widow, on money left her by her husband; of the self-education of a poet, especially in music, and of the joky idleness of youths in a solicitor’s office. Fuller comes from the upper levels of that large lower middle class which at any rate in his and my youth tolerated or even encouraged so much fertile eccentricity in kinsman and friend. Perhaps a general sense of oppression made our response to the concert-party comic so spontaneous, and gave us the giggles when somebody oddly or elegantly varied the social norms – Fuller’s grandfather, who would occasionally say, not ‘’ow do?’, but ‘How now, Tubal! What news from Genoa?’ I once worked in an office where the tedium of the nine-hour day was relieved by exactly the kinds of catchphrase that are still on the poet’s lips, and where, at intervals, the senior clerk would raise his bald head and huge parrot nose above the partition and croak such memorabilia as ‘Take it out or I’ll snap it off!’ He drank two cases of fizzy lemonade a day and died of throat cancer. So muttering over his cards, the poet’s grandfather would remind the company that ‘there’s many a man walking the streets of London with his shirt hanging out of his britches through not drawing trumps.’

‘One must be struck,’ writes Fuller, ‘setting down such brief lives, by their suitability for the fiction of, say, Arnold Bennett’s best period – their illustration of the petty bourgeoisie’s social mobility coupled with its immersion in the more or less sordid details of human existence, yet with a readiness to cope with life’s material side and in many ways – some the ways of art – to rise above it.’ This catches very well the ambience. A young artist might well thrive in that scene. Fuller may be right to discover in himself, all those years ago, something of the tristesse of his present; and perhaps blame that early milieu for a reluctance to take chances, whether in business or in literature, which has ‘prevented great achievements’. About combining business and poetry he is half-apologetic, half-defiant, remembering that Stevens also led ‘rather a routine life’. But what his memory recalls without failure is the England that made him a poet.

So the memoir will strike old buffers as being true and funny as well as sad. There are acute recollections of school, the extraordinary individuality of certain boys; of landladies and family. Always there is evidence of what Fuller calls the lawyer’s knack of hearing ‘faint bells ringing’. Souvenirs is a collection of trouvailles, like his poems – excogitations of the implicit. Once again one thinks of the poems that begin with such a trouvaille:

Looking up ‘love’ in Roget’s useful charts
(Itself a curious activity),
I find the astounding entry ‘nothing’. Why
Should the mind’s assent lag behind the heart’s?

To make many such finds is to work in defiance of the tremendous, to practise, however reluctantly, a minor art.

Some of life’s sense, I think, if sense at all
Resides in the minor artist’s artifact:
The variations on a small perception
Heroically destined for neglect ...

Fuller is on record as regarding his era as a period of good minor poetry: ‘it may be that our poetry will survive as a sort of great anthology of the first part of the 20th century’ – somewhat anonymously, that is, rather than as the work of particular poets: the work, almost, of ‘one collective poet’. I doubt this: there are the quirks of vision and language that distinguish him, and others, from the rest; there is a substance that prevails, as Stevens said, and a private contribution to the study Fuller once described as the proper study of poets – ‘the anomalous and not altogether unmysterious place of organic life in a universe largely of quite different stuff’.