It’s a huge pleasure introducing this month’s guest poet Carl Tomlinson. Carl and I met on a w/end poetry workshop some years ago. He was born in Lancashire – where his father’s family had farmed for 150 years. He now lives in Oxfordshire and is a coach and part-time finance director. His poems have been published in magazines, anthologies and online.
From his debut Changing Places I have chosen one poem that has a personal meaning to me: I was living in Southampton in 1976 and my late husband supported our local team. The other four poems are a moving tribute to Carl’s personal land and heritage. The cover picture was taken by him.
FA Cup Final. 1 May 1976. Southampton 1 – 0 Manchester United
Bobby Stokes made me a Red
one Spring day at Wembley.
He broke my heart in a moment
scuffing that shot past Stepney.
Although I wasn’t football mad
you still had to pick a side
and a playground full of Saints fans
said Man United were mine.
Four years after moving South
my accent was still abused.
Flattened vowels lurked in my mouth
and echoed round the school.
All that week I learned their names
eager to share the glory,
but sometimes, as the pundits say,
the Cup’s a fairy story.
Nil-nil at eighty-three minutes,
the telly rings with cheers.
Stokes shoots. He scores. Saints win it.
This was what I’d feared.
Bobby Stokes made me blush deep red
at hymn-time in assembly,
For all the saints, the teacher said.
Every face was turned on me.
I’d just got my A-levels out of the way
and was spending a week with my Aunt
in the house her grandfather’d built
in the garden behind the farm,
in a place that had seemed like forever, aged eight.
She said “Derek Fitton wants a hand with his hay.”
As kids we had loved helping Grandad,
chasing the baler round Tandle Hill’s haunch
riding the trailer back to the barn
echoing Tarzan calls under the bridge.
We lived with the itching and the seeds in our hair
because that was the way we were made.
It was ten years since the pain of the sale
and I wanted to feel like a farmer again.
Derek was glad of my help that day.
It was fun enough, in a blokeish way.
He gave me a fiver. Later, I drank it away.
The twine cut my fingers, my back complained
the welts sprang up on my arms again.
You wouldn’t know, I guess you’ve never baled
but it’s a different kind of ache when it’s not your hay.
Coming to grief
We were most of the way to Middleton
when I discovered that grief
doesn’t always dress in death.
One of my parents said
that Three Gates Farm –
where six generations had tilled
the last of Lancashire’s silty soil –
was being sold that week.
In the winter of sixty-three
my Grandad made the front page
phoning for a snowplough
because the lane was six foot deep.
Now we were in ‘th’Observer’ again
in the back of the classifieds
along with all the other lots
due ‘Under the Marshall hammer.’
Reading the paper emptied my eyes.
I realised whatever childish plans I’d made
for those fifty acres of gentle land
nudged between mill towns and millstone grit
were to be knocked down
(for twenty-six grand in the end)
in Ye Olde Boar’s Head
by an auctioneer I never met.
And by my father’s teenage need to leave that land
and make his life his own.
And by my uncle’s trying to stay
where I was sure we all belonged.
And by Grandad’s explaining
that even the hencotes would go.
So the scheme to keep one to use as a den,
that went south as well.
The parlour’s long since seen a cow,
there’s nothing like a farm there now
but the breath of beasts on a winter day
and the sweetness of cowshit and hay
surprise that grief back into me.
Accounts and correspondence,
attached with failing staples,
complete the detail of a sale
of Live and Dead Farming Stock.
Dead just means inanimate,
Then, in the Particulars, I find the line
that honours my line, and all they left here
‘The land will be seen to be
in a high state of fertility.’
“Oh bugger!”, the words thud.
I’ve just put the fork through a spud.
I’m showing our son and daughter
something I learnt from my father
which my Grandad had taught him before.
“You start a bit off, away from the green,
keep the fork away from the tubers,
you want to lift ‘em, not pierce ‘em,
and they’ll not store if you fork ‘em,
they’ll be no good if you fork ‘em’.”
Again the fork sinks, again the soil shifts
and this time a big‘un gets stuck on a tine.
“Oh bugger!” I thud before I’m stood up
and quick as an echo the lad pipes up
with “That’s what our Grandad said
when he put his fork through a spud.”