William Bedford’s The Dancers of Colbek reviewed by Janice Dempsey
The Dancers of Colbek by William Bedford. £9.99. Two Rivers Press. ISBN:978-1-909747-57-9
William Bedford’s new collection, The Dancers of Colbek, calls up the changing life of rural England after the second World War, as witnessed by Bedford as he grew up in the small towns of Lincolnshire. This is not straightforward autobiography; it’s also an account of the changing culture of rural England, often from the viewpoint of people from the poet’s childhood and youth: his family and contemporaries and other writers some his contemporaries, others, like John Clare, literary figures he admired.
The title is from a mediaeval book, Handlyng Synne by Robert Mannyng, in which Mannyng points out the dangers of sinfully revelling and dancing in church precincts. But Bedford suggests that the tale on which it was based was in reality a story warning against interfering with those pagan revellers’ dances.
As Bedford’s poems unfold, we’re aware that rural life has been subverted since the 1940’s. But the environment in which Bedford’s generation grew up lives on in pockets of the countryside and is remembered in flashes, in poems such as the penultimate one, named after T S Eliot’s ‘East Coker’, where:
The deep lane unwinds
while a van passes
like a sundial moving backwards,
a dazzling glimpse of time.
But I am going too fast. We begin by meeting Bedford’s grandmother, Charlotte Ann Bodsworth, who in 1944 made the then difficult journey to Grantham to see her new-born grandson, ‘the poet sleeping in his earliest days’. It was the last journey that she would make. In these short four stanzas we understand much: the vigorous character of his grandmother (‘a right lass,/ livelier than the youngsters in your black shawl.’); his father’s ‘family joke’ that seeing the poet for the first time caused her death; the slowness of life and of travel in those days; the changing perspectives of memory: ‘The long road from the farm was longer then.’
This is the first poem in the initial section, labelled ‘Slow Stopping Trains’. Here are vignettes of people and places from childhood (and even before.) ‘The Stove’ is in memory of a warmly remembered school teacher:
Where you sit in your old chair,
and the stove burns coke to a yellow glow,
warming your storyteller’s murmur.
Bedford often addresses the subjects of his poems as ‘you’, using the second person to conjure up a mood of intimacy and immediacy. So, in ‘Apples’ he seems to remind Isaac Newton that it was in Grantham that
Scrumping for windfalls,
you threw an apple in the air,
watching it spin and spiral down,
until it landed on the ground,
and then the poem opens out ‘elsewhere’ as he expands memory to include ‘the acres of Wultesthorpe green,/ then bitter / fenland cold of Cambridge rain.’ And focuses in again on Isaac Newton, bringing us back to autobiography. But now, perhaps, ‘you’ is Bedford himself. Time and space seem to flex, just as memory and dreams can do.
At the King’s School,
on the ‘Wagon and Horses’ Road’,
your ghost-walks were rare,
a schoolboy hoping to see
the apple fly,
the answer scribbled on the air.
There are small escapades; in ‘Belton Hall’, illicitly exploring the house with the chauffeur’s son, the boy sees Evelyn Waugh working in the library, ‘crouched at his words like a smith at the forge.’ There’s sadness in this poem, linked with the gardens outside where Bedford remembers his father exuberantly playing cricket, leading on to a memory of his father leaving. We’re not told why or even when he goes, except that it was summer:
‘In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
all that was begun was ended.’
Some of the poems in this section deal with family memories from before William Bedford’s birth: ‘Going Home’ deals with his adult understanding of his father’s refusal to discuss the Dunkirk retreat; ‘Skater’ remembers ‘Edith Annie Bedford 1915 – 1919’; a family memory rather than a personal one, and it’s told as a haunting:
freewheeling birds aloft
chasing your shadow beneath the skating elms,
circling free from cold and school room bells.
There are memorials to churches and villages lost or abandoned; a seaside town flooded and deserted in winter floods; a memory of Laurel and Hardy in a seaside music hall:
I sat in rows of gold and garish decoration,
but there were fleas in my hair when we left,
and my mother said fleas gave you polio.
– a reminder of the days before the NHS and penicillin were commonplace and children with callipers bracing their damaged legs were familiar in the schoolroom.
The centre section of the book is devoted to a series of poems in the voice of John Clare, the romantic nineteenth century poet who spent his working life as a rural labourer while writing poetry in a distinctively oral tradition. William Bedford has John Clare recounting his life, his early love for a girl whom he could not marry, and his incarceration in a mental asylum for the last decades of his life. The poems are written in the dialect and with the spelling that Clare used, and veer between romantic joy at the freshness and beauty of nature, and sadness. They are musical, honest, and oddly modern in some of their complaints:
They are selling our fields.
Be selling streams and willows soon,
the oldest trees heaven made for climbing.
William Bedford seems to revel in the dialect words he uses: a herring gull is a ‘cawdymawdy’; a country bumpkin is a ‘wopstraw’. His John Clare seems pretty sane and has a sense of humour. I enjoyed his confession that:
I could hev bin Byron I s’pose,
but perched on a wrong bough,
out nesting instead of learning,
He wouldn’t have liked fen country.
Too many dykes. Reeds.
Methodists mostly. Tinkers.
In the third section of the collection, ‘The Moving Field’, focus shifts to the post-Hiroshima age, the nineteen fifties and sixties, when American military bases were built in the fields of Lincolnshire:
‘They built the hangars on farming land
where winter wheat and skylarks reigned
regardless of the bright imperial sun.
In silos, gods of war hid beneath the ground.
Excluded like John Clare a hundred years before, the inhabitants nearby waited helpless while ‘The jeeps and vans and military police / patrolled our minds. “No trespassers”’
Personal history intertwines with social history in these poems. In ‘The Police House’ the poet’s father resents the administrative demands of the USAF personnel stationed at Hemswell in 1959. His racial prejudice, commonplace at the time (‘he had never seen a black face,/ didn’t know the word “negro”’ are a matter of honest recollection. The impact of the American ‘aliens’ on the local people is explored in poems about the writer’s coming of age, and his appreciation of the countryside and the poets who interpret nature for him. He tries to woo the daughter of one of the new residents with poems by Ezra Pound – but her father is not impressed – ‘The camp is no place for poets’. A visit with a girl to Lincoln Cathedral is appreciated through D H Lawrence’s ‘The Rainbow.’
In this last section, there’s sadness for the passing of time, for change that can only be understood in snapshots and glimpses through the eyes of the middle-aged and elderly who remember when life in rural England was less impacted by global and political change.
Not a pastoral idyll, but a heritage of traditions and pastures is celebrated in this collection. Near the end of the book, ‘The Translator’ expresses an inadequacy felt by an honest artist faced with a subject that moves them:
I cannot write the meadows,
the stumbling of a scarecrow stranger
as the deer frisk their surprise.’
Yet in this imaginative and lyrical collection William Bedford successfully attempts to do exactly that, in language that communicates his experience of rural England on temporal, historical, personal and environmental levels.
Janice Dempsey writes poetry and is a reviewer of poetry and theatre. She is also the co-founder and editor of the Dempsey & Windle Publishing, a poetry press based in Guildford.