Documenting Britain


Ever since I was a small child I’ve always loved that vertiginous plunge into other people’s lives you get through not-quite-shut curtains and warped back garden fences. I think poetry has the capacity to do something emotionally similar. My contribution to Documenting Britain, Scavenge, will develop through poems incorporating words taken from overheard conversations, from ads in local shop windows, road signs, place names, house names, graffiti, tattoos – anything and everything that speaks the language of Britain now.

Waiting in the wings of England

I’m so happy to be here as part of Documenting Britain, but this isn’t a very cheery post. I think that’s partly to do with the time of year, partly my time of life, but mostly the time we’re alive in. So many Big Things, some of them so huge they end up being invisible: elephant ghosts in our most closely guarded rooms. Plastic beaches, toxic oceans, climate chaos, wholesale species extinction – the threat of our own. All the different ways in which we sleepwalk towards it. The pain of waking up and not being able to stop.

Sometimes I try to write about this. A lot of the time I just don’t think about it. When I do, I’m aware that on the other side of the knife edge there is joy. There’s a sense of connection to the earth, and specifically my homeland, that can’t be severed. There’s also a feeling, fiercer than nostalgia, that is best expressed by the Portuguese word saudade – a kind of ecstatic sadness that has been described as ‘the love that remains after something has gone’.

The poem I’m posting here is rooted in all of this. One of my obsessions is collecting interesting words and phrases and then weaving them into something else. In this case it was place names spotted on two journeys, one by train and one by car. As England streamed past – greying haystacks, a cross on a hill, backyard Union Jacks frayed by fast trains – I was filled with that joy/belonging/saudade concoction. At the same time, the shadows of the Big Things seemed to fall across the landscape. When I saw road signs for Wanlip and Warninglid, place names which simmered with portent, the poem started writing itself.

Waiting in the wings of England

Wanlip, Warninglid,
Poverty Hill.

Destinations the map
mutters darkly over –

the hard to read small print
on what lies ahead

beyond rear windows filled
with sucker-footed soft toys

and electric pink signs
singing Princess on Board.

Seething. Wideopen.
Gibbet Wood. Nomansland.

And here – set against
a monoculture of rape

spotted with poppies
and patrolled by crows

in their frayed City suits –
howling out of this hairpin

bend to cut straight
to the chase: Cotgrave.