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Sunday, February 24, 2013
LOSING MY SECRECY: THE SECRET YEARS, 1967 TO 1973
The rude awakening of losing a career was to find a job
akin to my educational qualifications. At the end of summer 1972 I got into the
tail end of student work at Haverhill Meat Products – the fastest pig cutting
line in Europe (at the time). Assigned to cleaning, I got to see every
department in the factory – from void to basement, from the abattoir to the
This was an eye opener which influenced me greatly – my poetry,
art and politics. Here was the madness of the market, the failings of the food
industry, the power of workers, the brilliance of working class humanity and
the dregs of the fat pit in the basement from which lipstick was made.
By 1975 I had made a series of drawings of my experiences
and it had become the back drop to my first long poem, ‘Blunt Pink.’ Nearly
twenty years later the factory, in part, became the scaffolding of my 1992 BBC
Radio 4 Play ‘Overspill.’ But I jump forward too far.
A few weeks at HMP and I was off, chasing something more
permanent. I got a job at a factory in Glemsford, Suffolk, where they prepared
spices and other ingredients for prepared food. I worked in the pepper mill – a
huge one. I had to carry half-hundred weight sacks up a ladder, cut the sacks
open and tip into the mill, rush down the ladder to bag up the ground pepper
and so on and so forth.
Others manned worse machines including the liquorice root
crusher, which caught fire while I was there.
Fag breaks were few and short and taken in a shed. One
bloke, probably 40 but looking 60, coughed his guts up: “Son, yer no used to
heavy industry?” he said rhetorically to me in a deep Scottish accent. Sure but
I didn’t want to die choking on dust and on the bus to work on my third day I
didn’t (couldn’t) get off at the factory.
My exasperated parents sent me back to Liverpool to work
on the first film he was making. It was a great short, almost silent black and
white film but my life was back in Suffolk, however plodding that would be.
Luckily, unnoticed by me, the country was changing. Even
in Suffolk Comprehensive Education was coming in and there were genuinely more
opportunities for those of us who had fallen through the barbed-wire net. From
September 1972 to July 1973 I took ‘A’ level art and some ‘O’ Levels at Bury St
Edmunds FE College (now West Suffolk College) The teachers were liberal and the
institution relaxed and student orientated. I loved it and within a year I had
1972 and 1973 were whirlwind years in which I realised I
wanted to be some kind of poet. In 1972 I began submitting my poetry to the
flourishing little magazines – a scene grown out of the new democratisation of
the arts and the more open society of the 1970s. However, I was 20 and had not
been to University and my upbringing didn’t give me confidence in my abilities.
One of my first rejections was from the nice Norman
Hidden of New Poetry Magazine, who prided himself in actually responding
himself to each submission. His advice: “don’t run before you can walk.”
I know what Norman Hidden meant but if you had a baby
which went straight from crawling to running you’d not be shouting at it: “Oi!
You walk first! No self-taught Olympian in this house!”
So the rejection slips began to come in.
However, I had been sharing my poetry with my peers and a
student, Andrew Killin (?) produced an ‘alternative’ duplicated college
magazine, which featured seven of my poems! Read by fifty people, perhaps, this
was a start.
Of the seven, one was a huge problem, then as it is now –
‘Vulturis – a poem for forgotten South Africa.
full circus Flesh
in the dust
the children Are watching
the menagerie Are the
menagerie The vultures
disguise May circumference Discarded
meat On the
are selected elements from the poem – a poem which tries to be clever. If
Norman Hidden had said: “you don’t need to be clever to write poetry” I would
have been a lot further forward. Or would I?