Thursday, 19 April 2018

James Kirkup Centenary Event (Also Featuring Francis Scarfe)

Kirkup (L) and Scarfe (R)

Yesterday, a small group of people gathered at The Word: National Centre for theWritten Word in South Shields to commemorate the centenary of the poet James Kirkup, and also to celebrate the poet Francis Scarfe. Born just seven years apart – Scarfe in 1911, on Stanhope Road, Kirkup in 1918, on Robertson Street – they were near contemporaries of each other whose lives, right from birth, would run parallel, though it’s not certain they ever met.

The event yesterday was a chance to remember the town’s most well-known interwar years poets and to consider their legacy on modern and contemporary poetry on the south side of the Big River (that’s the Tyne) as well as further afield.

We started by showing a short film, ‘I Love Our Town’, shot in 1972 by James Kirkup’s long-term friend, Dorothy Fleet. Made on one of Kirkup’s rare visits back to the North-East, the film is both a brilliant introduction to some of the recurring themes in Kirkup’s work and a precious glimpse into life in the town 45 years ago. Dorothy recalls plucking the courage to speak to James, who was giving a poetry reading further up the river in Newcastle’s Hancock Museum a while before the film was made. After their meeting, Kirkup suggested that Dorothy write a radio play based on extracts from his first autobiography, A Child of the Tyne. Newly-married, Dorothy admits that the project simply didn’t get done. In its place appeared the script for a cine-film: a 13-minute movie which shows Kirkup dandying around sites in South Shields, with cut-aways of street kids, feral cats and riverside traffic adding additional ambiance to Kirkup’s narrative, where he both reminisces about his childhood in the town and muses on some of its idiosyncrasies in verse. Kirkup once described South Shields as ‘the most surrealistic in Britain’, both, I suspect, as a nod to his love of the Surrealists (many of Kirkup’s poems, in the way that they conjure bizarre, metaphysical landscapes, often incongruously, are very much akin to de Chirico’s Surrealist images) and his love-hate relationship with a town whose ‘limitations’ he would tire of.

Bloodaxe, 2017

Neil Astley of Bloodaxe Books, Sheila Wakefield of Red Squirrel Press, Tom Kelly and myself then each read poems from Kirkup and Scarfe’s back catalogue – all of the recited poems generously represented in Bloodaxe’s recently-published Land of Three Rivers: the Poetry of North-East England. What came across, as we jumped from Kirkup to Scarfe and back to Kirkup again, was the subtle differences in tone and voice and the way that, when brought together, two poets ostensibly writing about the same subjects can come at things in distinct ways.

During his putting together of Land of Three Rivers, Neil Astley remarked that a previously-unseen poem of Scarfe’s, ‘Tyne Dock Revisited’, had been discovered by the poet’s son, now living in Spain. Illuminating and adding to his well-known ‘Tyne Dock’ poem, which recalls the ‘shaggy mining town’ where he grew up, ‘Tyne Dock Revisited’ (published in Lo3R with earlier, undated manuscript lines) evokes the industrial atmosphere of Shields with precision and poignancy: ‘The foghorn through the briny night/The blue fog churning through the night’ (alternate line). Scarfe and Kirkup both wrote poems about the town’s knocker-up, the man tasked with rising labourers from slumber at the crack of dawn, with Astley speculating that it is entirely possible both poets were unknowingly writing about the very same man. Tom Kelly and Neil Astley further alternated between the two poets, with readings from Scarfe’s ‘The grotto’ and Kirkup’s ‘Marsden Rock’ giving a good sense of the otherworldliness of Marsden Bay, a place that has been close to my heart since I was a child.

Red Squirrel Press, 2008

Sheila Wakefield, born in County Durham, read Kirkup poems set in landscapes she knows intimately. Shorter poems about Ferryhill and Chester-le-Street (recounted as Haiku, a form Kirkup would come to adore) were set against the lyric ‘Durham Seen From The Train’, which contains the beautiful line ‘The heart imagines what the eye no longer sees.’

As well as reading original draft materials from my new sequence based on Shields Sketches, the book of illustrations by George McVay with poems selected to match by Kirkup which I first discovered while clearing out my great-grandmother’s flat in East Boldon seven years ago, I read two Kirkup poems that were geographically apt: ‘The Town Where I Was Born’, where, travelling on a ferry to North Shields, Kirkup witnesses the Tyne as the Styx; and ‘The Old Clothes Stall, South Shields Market’, a moment of empathy set against the Winter of Discontent (1978-79), where he imagines an afterlife for the ‘collier’s clogs [and] seaman’s denims’, once worn by now-‘out-of-work puppets’. Both poems are set yards from The Word, so it was especially pleasing to be able to bring to life their settings within the town’s fantastic new library, the original one on Ocean Road harbouring the many books so cherished by the adolescent Kirkup, providing the inspiration that both he and Scarfe would later kindle, going on to be revered as poets and translators in Japan and France respectively. As somebody involved in both the writing of my own collection of poems inspired by South Tyneside and as a critic interested in pre-existing work from the area, this event was both a pleasure to be involved with and an inspiration. As Scarfe’s fantastic poem ‘Miners’ has it, ‘the warmth of whose heart lights a fire in each hearth and home’ will certainly continue to glow for me as I read more about both poets and add to my own collection.

If you would like to see Dorothy’s fantastic film, there is an opportunity to do so at 10am on Monday 23rd April at The Customs House. Marking exactly 100 years since Kirkup’s birth, the event will hopefully not be an end-point, but more a continuation of a series of markers to acknowledge the extraordinary talent and vision of a man who may have left these shores physically, but always remained in touch, through poems, letters and, just occasionally, scrambles back down to the shore.

Hub Editions, 2002

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