Introduction to ‘Tabula Rasa – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume One’
© Paul Hemphill 2013. All rights reserved.
London John long watched the world begin on the edge of an optimistic morning
Cynics say that most people who remember the sixties were not there. Well, I was, and I remember it all so well. And was it as great as they say? Yes it was, to me at any rate. But in reality, the story of the ‘swinging sixties’ has grown with the telling. In the closing scene of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”. And much of what has been remembered, written, and said about those years has followed that maxim.
This was indeed a decade of change and ferment. Values changed, morals changed, habits changed, clothes changed, music changed (the best music ever). The way people looked at the world and thought about it. We often look back and remark that a supernova of creativity burst over the western world during those years, the likes of which was not seen before and has never been seen again. And nowhere more so than in decadent, decaying, depressing, old England, trapped in tradition, class, and prejudice.
And yet, this revolution road was walked by but a few. The greater proportion of the populace, young and old alike, carried on as if nothing untoward was happening. Following in their fathers’ footsteps, faithful to social and economic scripts written before their time, possessed of neither time, means, opportunity or inclination to indulge in the sensual, intellectual, artistic and political playground that was accessible to students and socialites of that generation. People were more affluent, no doubt, more comfortable in a maslovian sense, more socially mobile, better educated (a relative term, this), but overall, not overly adventurous. And truth be said, many of the social and political changes that are said to epitomize the ‘sixties, were well underway during the ‘fifties and even earlier, or did not reach true fruition until the decades that followed.
But for we few, we happy few, in our own private Idahos, our little self-important backwaters of intellectual and cultural elitism, times were indeed a’changin.
So it was that in September 1968, I left Birmingham and headed for Reading University to study politics. There I remained until June 1971, and thence, travelled to the east and back, and then to London. In March 1978 I migrated to Australia (a story for another day). During this decade, I made and lost friends, had sex, fell in and out of love, did drugs and drank hard, studied and worked, married, travelled, played music and made music, read widely and wrote a lot.”Like humans do” as David Byrne was later to sing.
The poems and prose in this collection capture a little of these times. They begin in Reading, a provincial English town on the River Thames, known in those days for its brewery and its biscuit factory. Not as exotic, historical, or picturesque as its famous upstream and downstream neighbours, Oxford, Henley, and Windsor. But, it hosted a fine university in a bucolic landscape that lent itself to pastoral pleasures and romantic escapism. And it was here, in that intellectual ivory tower, that the school boy became a ‘new age’ man.
From there I roved out. As Jack Bruce sang, ‘You thought the leaden winter would bring you down forever, But you rode upon a steamer to the violence of the sun. And the colours of the sea bind your eyes with trembling mermaids, and you touch the distant beaches with tales of brave Ulysses’. So, to the Mediterranean littoral, and thence, literally, following in the footsteps of Iskander. “Eastwards, aye, I wandered”, the song goes. Through the Middle East, then onto the Hippy Trail to India, and back again.
To London, where destiny of a sort awaited. In 1777, celebrated essayist Samuel Johnson said “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. A cliché, yes, over-used and over-quoted, oft times, out of context. A cover story of Time Magazine on ‘Swinging London’ in April 1966 was entitled “You can walk across it on the grass’. That was and remains part of the magic of the place. That, and its art, its architecture, its history. And, exploring the main streets, mean streets and backstreets, parks and parade grounds, mews and alleys of Old London, I always reckoned that old Sam got it spot on – and still do today, whenever I chance to return.
What wonders dwelt within. Permit me to recall here but a few. The old church of St. Bartolph-Without, which turned up in later days in a Dracula movie. The churchyard of St. Paul’s, a haven for summer’s day lunch-timing. Green Park in spring sunshine as the lily white skin of England divests for primavera. Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat.
And adjacent, in Hayes Mews, the hostelry with the longest pub name in London, ‘The Only Running Footman’. Such a magical name, it was, conjuring up motion and majesty, speed and style. And it remained in my mind this half-century hence. I had an affinity with this anonymous, antique athlete. These were my running days. I ran everywhere. To the underground, to work, to the shops, to the pub (but not back), though the city, around the town. It is all there in ‘It All Began With A Gentle Riot’. I revelled in the movement, in the freedom, in the physical and psychological exhilaration of it all. My running days are long over, but I still run in my dreams
These were days of adapting to new environments and circumstances. They were exciting, they were challenging. I was young, restless, at turns, idealistic and cynical, puritanical and hedonistic. In retrospect, days of emotional and intellectual ferment. Days of “finding one’s way in the world”. Not some reformationey, renaissancial, enlightenment thingy. Post-adolescent onanism, more like.
As John Lennon sang: “Strange days indeed. Most peculiar, Mama!“ Irish bombs, miners’ strikes, power cuts, rubbish piled up on streets, and economic recession. A three-day week as England closed down for want of coal. Candles and coldness. Late starts and early finishes. A stack of books left in the lift in case I was caught when the lights went out. In one job, I’d walk through a bomb shattered foyer, into the mail room, to put all the mail thru a whopping great X ray machine to see if the paddies had sent us any letters. The police arrested my bike when I left it chained to a parking meter – in case it was used to hide a bomb. And you would actually hear explosions as you went about your business. Arriving at a much smaller Heathrow Airport, finding it surrounded by armoured cars and armed soldiers and police. I got a kick out of the blitz-like solidarity, the trench humour, and deprivation and darkness. Layla rocked a London that was neither as drear not as dammed as some paint it. Back then, I was in love with the place. I was young, idealistic, and as the poet said “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!“
Writing old word with new meanings upon an open page, We move, and all the time, the thread’s unravelling
This anthology covers my doings and doodlings during that era, from my perch on the sidelines of that wondrous decade, and the tumultuous and controversial one that followed. Some of the subject matter speaks to the times. Some of it gives words to the ageless angst and anxiety that are but part of adolescence, and common to all times and territories.
There are sundry poems, pictures and prose that mirror passions, positions, and preoccupations. Some are quite original. Others are derivative of various poetical forms. Romantics and Pre-Raphaelites, Beats and Beatles. And some are out and out plagiarized. Reading these poems recently, I was surprised at how large slabs of Auden, Kipling, Tolkien and Yeats, and more besides (including virtually a whole song by the Greek dramatist Aristophanes), had inveigled themselves onto the written (and in most instances, actually handwritten) pages without as much as a credit or reference. In retrospect, I reckon that the logic behind their usage was that the cognoscenti reading these works would recognize the source take it as read, and move on.
Many poems written during this decade are not included in this volume as they became part of the formal opus that is now published in ’Into the Howling Infinite’. But there are surprises aplenty (for myself, particularly, rereading them now, after almost fifty years), including scattered fragments of verse that would one day find homes in other poems, and the first drafts of pieces that in the ‘eighties, would become songs. For example, ‘Embryo’, ‘Byzantium’, ‘Celebration’, ‘Christopher Columbus’, ‘The Day After Creation’, ‘and ‘Red Rain’. And in an altogether different guise, the poems that went on to evolve into ‘King of the May’ and ‘Rhythm of the Revolution’.
Two poems more than any others encapsulate the decade. They were written in London in the early ‘seventies, and although they are not part of the Tabula Rasa collection, having been included in ’Into The Howling Infinite’, they are reproduced in full as part of this forward in faux-Olivetti courier font. As is the final ‘post script’ of a poem, ‘Back When’.
And the pictures? The old, grainy ones were taken by my brother Peter when we and my old school chum Dave holidayed in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in the summer of 1969. We stayed in the tiny terrace house in Patrick Street where my mother was born in 1928. The landscapes were taken from atop Vinegar Hill, site of the famous battle of the 1798 rebellion. Memory and mythology have coloured the story somewhat. It was less a momentous victory, the only one indeed in that quixotic intifada, than a tactical withdrawal leading to a tragic denouement at Ross and Wexford. The famous statue in the market square of Enniscorthy shows the doomed Father Murphy, a leader of the ’98, pointing the way to Vinegar Hill for a young volunteer, ‘The Croppy Boy’. History – and indeed, our lives – have a way of echoing across the world and down the years. In 1804, Irish convicts in the far-away penal colony of New South Wales, raised the flag of rebellion against the the British soldiery. Their forlorn hope was crushed at a place they called Vinegar Hill. Ten years after we stood atop the Wexford Hill, I visited the site of the convicts’ revolt.
Others pictures were taken in Highgate in North London, including one of old Karl’s grave in the famous cemetery. He and it get a mention in a more recent poem. There are two from the ‘fields’ that were part of the grounds of the Whiteknights Park campus of Reading University. These pastures are no more, alas! To paraphrase Joni, they ‘paved paradise’ and put in a new science block. And there are even some rare shots taken ‘on the road’ in The Mysterious East, including one “by the rivers of Babylon”
It is a poetic irony that when in January 2013, my mother slipped peacefully into the hereafter, I googled Pershore Council to let longtime Councilor Dave Shaw know of her passing, only to discover that he had passed the previous Saturday with a brain hemorrhage. The photograph of him in the Evesham Journal, with his binoculars and bird book, outside the glorious Pershore Abbey is just how I will always remember him. It is to Dave then, that this volume is dedicated.