THE BLIND MAN’S ROAD
“I begin with writing the first sentence and trusting to Almighty God for the second” Sterne writes in ‘Tristram Shandy’, and this is a technique that I’ve found works just as well for an atheist. The blind man’s road the title of this talk refers to is metaphorically my own as a poet, but also literally to the main one from where I live into and out of Leeds, Chapeltown Road, made on its modern route by Blind Jack Metcalf. Unlike me, Jack was a dynamic individual, a former fiddler, guide, livestock dealer, smuggler and soldier, who always knew where he was going, like in the old song, while I stumble about in the light. “I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering” Robert Frost wrote, and that is what I mean by striking lucky, making the discovery that is worth sharing with a reader. This presentation will be less like a poem, as I have an idea of its end, but neither is it one of Jack’s direct roads: “If I was you, I wouldn’t start from here” the Irishman in the joke says when asked directions, but I’m going to follow his advice and start in London, where I was born, the first of my family’s eleven children born outside Ireland, my father having come over for work as it was scarce in the rural Tipperary they came from. My father was successful in finding work at a milk-bottling plant and we settled in Paddington. As teenagers, my friends and I tended to support Chelsea, Leeds’ great antagonists, because the 28 bus ran conveniently if meanderingly from Kilburn Bridge to Stamford Bridge and back again, reminding me of Paul Muldoon’s definition of a poem as a bridge to itself, or even the bridge on a violin. I wrote a poem for a friend who opened a fiddle school near Kenmare in County Kerry, Ireland, Gill Newlyn, who I got to know in Leeds.
The Fiddle Teacher
When Padraig played one lullaby,
the big old door key in his teeth,
he’d stroke it on his fiddle’s bridge
to raise a teething baby’s cry.
She puts new keys between their teeth
and cuts them on the great and gone;
she breaks the silences they clutch
to wake the fiddlers underneath.
The “Padraig” I refer to here is Padraig O’Keefe, one of the great and gone who did indeed use a key as a variable mute in this fashion. One of the great and still here “master fiddlers”, as a recent TV programme called him, is Bryan Rooney, who we used to hear play at the White Hart just around the corner from Stamford Bridge after evening matches. In her book ‘Bringing It All Back Home’, Nuala O’Connor writes “In [Ewan] MacColl’s wake … Irish traditional musicians began to be considered [seriously] by folk enthusiasts who now frequented pubs like the White Hart in Fulham where ‘pure’ traditional music was played”, and I will return to the relationship between Irish and English traditional music eventually, but the aspect of its performance in pubs I want to draw attention to now is its protocol whereby although people talked through musicians playing (in truth anyway more for each other than any notion of an audience), silence was always called for if somebody was about to sing. I envied that respect, one also shown to poetry in the Irish community. My mother had learned reams of it by heart at school, a feature of its teaching in those days, and she recited it often as she worked about the house, often singing too, although the same tune seemed to carry a wide range of lyrics. Very good Irish poets often wrote words to be sung in a way that their English counterparts rarely did, in the last century anyway. I’m thinking here of the beautiful ‘She Moved Through The Fair’, with all but the last verse written by Padraic Colum and Kavanagh’s ‘Raglan Road’:
On Raglan Road on an autumn day I met her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare that I might one day rue;
I saw the danger, yet I walked along the enchanted way,
And I said, let grief be a fallen leaf at the dawning of the day.
As blind as the lover in Kavanagh’s song, I set out on my own enchanted way at 16, leaving school, though I soon got fed up with the world of unskilled work, took my ‘A’ levels at night school and got into Leeds University. My brother had moved to the city before me and told me it was an easy place to live in on little money, still relatively true. It was certainly easy to get to from our home in London: straight up Kilburn High Road to Staples Corner for the M1 and hitch from there, a direct line from a Roman road onto one just as unerring. Even Blind Jack would have been impressed.
Geoffrey Hill was the star of the School of English in Leeds and his ‘Mercian Hymns’ were fresh at the time. He bore a constant expression of engaged disgust during his readings which I once compared in an interview to that of a pig’s chewing a thistle, causing considerable upset, so I’m told, though my comparison was on the basis of ambivalence rather than appearance. Loreto Todd taught there also and in her book ‘The Language of Irish Literature’ she describes Padraic Colum’s ‘The Fiddler’s House’ as “a play which deals with a recurrent theme in Irish literature: the road and people who, from choice or necessity, find themselves upon it.” Waves of migrants to Leeds have settled in Chapeltown notably Jewish, Irish and Caribbean. Chapeltown Road being made by Blind Jack Metcalf always struck me as highly appropriate for a centre of economic migration, where people came blindly to earn a living and make a new life, much as my father had come to London. Leeds is disliked by natives of other Northern cities for many reasons, and one of them is this very immigration; Leeds’ old nicknames of ‘the Holy City’ and ‘the Jerusalem of the North’ are anti-semitic sneers in nature. Chapeltown Road itself is a palimpsest of succeeding communities but one sentence painted on the wall opposite Cantor’s Fish Bar was unerasable, REMEMBER OLUWALE, the Empire migrant who died after a campaign of persecution by local police. I passed it thousands of times, eventually being involved with the David Oluwale Memorial Association, as I still am, something I have written about for Poetry London. This, coincidentally, features a very considerable poet now living in Hebden Bridge, Peter Riley, whose recent ‘Due North’, treating on an epic, historical scale the movements of peoples in search of work and a new life, including his own Irish ancestors, in a book as significant as Basil Bunting’s ‘Briggflatts’, although Bunting was hostile to the influence of Irish incomers to the North-East. In a note to Section II of ‘Due North’, Riley mentions Joe Heaney, one of the great sean-nós singers who migrated via England to the USA, where he worked as a doorman in a Manhattan hotel. A resident of this hotel was Merv Griffin, who got Joe to sing on his talk show, which made Joe famous. Joe lies behind a poem by the Irish-American Mike Donaghy called ‘An Irish Doorman Foresees His Death’ and we’ll return to Mike later.
The migrant sean-nós singer I want to write about now came to Leeds from Mayo via London, where Joe started out from Connemara, Darach Ó Catháin. I should mention that sean-nós (“old style”) is a highly elaborate, unaccompanied style of traditional Irish singing, with stylistic features including the glottal stop, alien to most European traditions but often found among those of the Indian sub-continent (itself well-represented in communities around Chapeltown Road), Seán Ó Riada once said of this connection, “In approaching that style of singing which is called in Irish the Sean-nós, the “old style”, it is best to …think of Indian music rather than European”. Indeed, Robert Welch while he was teaching at Leeds University described a meeting with Darach and Irish poet Pearse Hutchinson in a different pub where, after Darach struck up, they were thrown out by the landlord who didn’t want “any of that Pakistani singing.” The landlord was a wiser racist than he knew.
Darach worked on the roads and Leeds’ long-established Irish community was refreshed by workers on the M1, remaining there when that ran out to capitalise on Leeds’ determination to become ‘the Motorway City’. I’d get to hear Darach sing in the Roscoe on lower Chapeltown Road, a pub ironically knocked down later to make way for the Sheepscar Interchange, something I wrote about in the following poem. I should explain that a ‘Gaeligore’ is an Irish-speaker, ‘Róisín Bán’ literally means ‘White Rose’, signifying Yorkshire obviously but is also a reference to the Irish song ‘ Róisín Dubh’, where ‘Dubh’ means ‘Black’ (the root of my own surname, as it happens) and is a personification of Ireland. The ‘black stuff’ is road-surfacing material (as in ‘The Boys from the Black Stuff’) but is also a synonym for Guinness, while Leeds Guinness’ legendary smoothness was due to its coming from Dublin directly rather than being driven up from the Park Royal Brewery in London.
The M1 laid, they laid us off;
we stayed where it ran out in Leeds,
a white rose town in love with roads,
its Guinness smooth, its locals rough.
Some nights we’d drink in Chapeltown,
a place not known for Gaeligores,
to hear Ó Catháin sing sean-nós ―
Ó Riada gave him the crown.
Though most were lost by ‘Róisín Dubh’,
all knew his art was rich and strange
in a pub we drowned in our black stuff
when we laid the Sheepscar Interchange.
Pulped books help asphalt stick to roads
and cuts down traffic-sound as well;
between white lines a navvy reads
black seas of words that did not sell.
The contemporary composer Christopher Fox has been kind enough to say on the sleeve notes of his new CD ‘The Feeling of Remembering’ that its piece ‘The Dark Road’ was inspired by this poem. It is a beautiful rhapsody on ‘Róisín Dubh’ played on the cello by Anton Lukoszevieze, underscored by the voices of three men who came from Ireland to Leeds for work on the motorways.
Leeds’ Irish community was distinguished by the excellence and innovation of its traditional musicians. Interviewed for ‘Folkworld’ once, Karen Tweed remarked: “People in Ireland talk about a Leeds style, that they play in Leeds and that you can tell is from Leeds, but it’s Irish music.” Similarly, cognoscenti talk of Paul Ruane’s “Leeds/Sligo style” of fiddle-playing. Irish music’s influence on and adaptation to its new environments has been significant for a long time; Francesca Allinson has written on how English folk music became “saturated” with Irish influences in the nineteenth century. The technicalities of their hitherto-contrasting manners being described Samuel Bayard in this passage: “The English style is characterised by a certain solidity of melodic build and emphasis throughout the tune on the strong notes of the mode, like the tonic or dominant tones, and by preference for the sort of melodic movement which ‘gets somewhere’ … the English singer’s leaning to relatively straightforward and simple melodic lines is counteracted in Irish tradition by love of ornament, of multiplying notes, of varying rhythmic patterns by this sort of multiplication.” Bayard believes these ornamental tendencies gave Irish music a “wavering and unemphatic movement … impeding the course of the melody”. I would draw a parallel with literature, where a “wavering and unemphatic movement” of narrative, with analogous “impeding of the course of the melody” (with narrative standing in for melody) is evident in the work of a number of “Irish” writers, from Laurence Sterne himself (born in my family’s home county of Tipperary, although he would have be horrified to be described as Irish) meandering through Oscar Wilde and Flann O’Brien on to the likes of Paul Muldoon and Ciaran Carson, a great admirer of Darach Ó Catháin himself, as it happens. Perhaps Irish music appealed to the Enclosure dispossessed (Clare collected and played it on his fiddle as well as working on Enclosure gangs for four years, building fences and straightening roads) who were attracted by its elegiac, wandering qualities, its ability to express sadness and uncertainty, the shades of loss of those made homeless and finding themselves on the road after work, as in the comment I have already quoted from Loreto Todd about this being such a feature of Irish literature.
Moving to Yorkshire continued my own involvement in homelessness work that started in London and detoured for a spell in Belfast before Leeds, in a part of that nicknamed the Holy Land, running a hostel for young offenders during the Troubles at a time when wandering blindly down a road that turns into the wrong road could get you into a lot of trouble, not to mention your grave. I also came into closer contact with an astonishing range of poets including Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Paul Muldoon, Ciaran Carson, Medbh McGuckian and Frank Ormsby who’d publish my first poems in ‘The Honest Ulsterman’ including ‘From the Irish’, which I shall return to. Seamus Heaney of course was supreme among them and he championed Patrick Kavanagh, who wrote “I dabbled in verse and it became my life.” Something similar happened to me; verse becoming my life after I finally left the homelessness field as a professional, having been made redundant from a project in Bradford that closed down due to funding cuts, and decided to have a go as a writer.
Even after my career change (if you can call them careers) I pursued connections between traditional music and poetry occasionally in my work, though this did not always now go down well with the more sophisticated literati. Andrew Duncan, for example, wrote of me that my “admiration for folk styles…chased out literary interest almost altogether.” Yet in the face of all charges of crudity, traditional music can be analysed by its adherents with a subtlety completely absent from much contemporary poetry criticism. You could talk about Roscommon, Kerry or West Limerick bodhrán styles and aficionados would know exactly what you were meant, while simplistic binary divisions are routinely peddled in the poetry world. In it, nevertheless, I was also keen to explore history’s forgotten people but this causes its own problems when we are enjoined to write poetry observing the shibboleths that it is post-identity, dissolving the poetic subject, suspicious of ‘voice’ and the lyric ‘I’, not consonant with my interest in forgotten, marginal or ignored experience.
Those between nationalities inevitably attracted me as well, “hyphenated people”, as I termed them in a poem I wrote for my exact contemporary, the Irish-American Mike Donaghy, who died from a brain haemorrhage in 2004 at the age of 50. Mike was a notable bodhrán player, also excellent on the flute as well as being a brilliant poet. I played the bodhrán which was the traditional instrument of wrenboys in Ireland, a family tradition of mine (I mentioned at a reading once that my father had been a wrenboy when he was young and was surprised afterwards when people complimented me on my bravery in sharing this. After a while I realized they thought I’d said he was a rent boy). Bodhrán players can be unpopular, not least with other musicians if played too loudly, given its outdoor origins. In Section XLIX of ‘Odi Barbare’, Geoffrey Hill writes of the ‘bodhrán’s bull measure on stinging denim”. While I have no idea why the denim should be stinging, I wonder if the drum’s bull measure refers to its loudness or the phrase “Irish bull” which is related to the “cock and bull” expression so central to ‘Tristram Shandy’. “An Irish bull is always pregnant” wrote Mahaffey providing a definition of the term and an example of it at the same time: a paradoxical statement which is yet “pregnant” with meaning. Dineen’s dictionary, the great etymological dictionary of Irish, is famously whimsical, rendering a translation of bodhrán into English as ‘dildurn’, a word that doesn’t exist in any English dictionary I’ve consulted. He tended to record words as he felt they ought to be used, rather than as they actually were used, something I exploited for this, the most unsuccessful love poem I know of:
From the Irish
According to Dineen, a Gael unsurpassed
in lexicographical enterprise, the Irish
for moon means the white circle in a slice
of half-boiled potato or turnip. A star
is the mark on the forehead of a beast
and the sun is the bottom of a lake, or well.
Well, if I say to you your face
is like a slice of half-boiled turnip,
your hair is the colour of a lake’s bottom
and at the centre of each of your eyes
is the mark of the beast, it is because
I want to love you properly, according to Dineen.
This was an early crossroads poem for me, feeling my way between languages, emotions and art, about genuine love incompetently expressed, blinded by seeing words in dictionaries ― I was told by an old local that Blind Jack would check the size and shape of stones for the drainage layer of his road by rolling them around in his mouth like new words, feeling his way as I was in this poem. My next book will be called ‘The Blind Roadmaker’ in honour of him as this is called ‘The Blind Man’s Road’, so, like Muldoon’s definition of a poem, this talk has been a bridge leading to itself, a leap of faith by an atheist hoping I can interest you in what I’ve mentioned here, if only because I found it so inspirational myself. When I imagined Blind Jack striding through the countryside, getting a feel for the course his road should follow, I remembered an old Italian folk-story about how clever Ovid was, a feature of which was his ability to read with his feet, which reminded me of Machado: “Travellers, there is no road. The road is made only by your feet”. This text too is a pediscipt, as Mike Donaghy described the pattern of footmarks left by Irish dancers on the floor after a night’s fun, and, like an Irish dance or a Shandyesque digression, ending where I began, talking about beginnings, and how they can be endings.
Photo Courtesy of National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin