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 lard plant.
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 some qualifications.
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.
Will full circus
Flesh in the dust
White pityThat the children
Are watching the menagerie
Are the menagerie
Any numeralIn secret disguise
On the quiet
These 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?