June 29, 2012 § 3 Comments
Spence Broughton has been catching up with me.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Spence Broughton, son of a respectable Fenland farmer, was convicted with another man of robbing a mail boy on the highway between Sheffield and Rotherham in 1791. Despite what appeared to have been a rather gentile hold-up (the boy was tied to a hedge), and Broughton’s consistent denial of the charge, he was condemned at the Spring Assizes in York the following year, hanged at York Tyburn, and his body taken back to the scene of the crime and suspended in a gibbet – betwixt heaven and earth (as unworthy of either) to be buffeted by the winds and storms, to quote the hanging judge, Mr Buller. And buffeted he was, for over 30 years: it was only when the land where the gibbet pole stood was sold in 1827 that the remains were taken down. Too much of an eyesore for the new owner, apparently.
My poem sequence, The Purging of Spence Broughton, a Highwayman, was published by Longbarrow Press in 2009. It was an attempt to give the dead man some right of reply. Set against the weight of formal narratives and the edicts and pronouncements of authority, Spence’s is a fractured voice. The sequence traces a loss – of identity and sanity as well as corporeality – to a vanishing point, ‘just sticks and wind’. Nevertheless, he is given some form of redemption as the ‘soft earth’ swallows him.
The sequence was read, along with other pieces, one fading summer’s evening in 2009, to a small audience that had made the journey to the 17th century Hill Top Chapel, hidden and almost forgotten behind willows and cracked gravestones, in among the dust of factories and the gleam of the new sports temples in the Don Valley. It is a short walk up Attercliffe Road to the site of the gibbet. The gathering of people in this simple, surprising building, its three-foot walls holding our voices perfectly, made an event that I hope did some justice to the subject.
Some months ago, I was put in contact with one of Broughton’s descendents, who had bought a copy of the sequence and who was visiting Yorkshire in the tracks of the man. We met in the Botanical Gardens – father and son, me and the poems, and talked about Spence Broughton. One question I was asked was the simplest: Why? I’ve been mulling my answers over since. My original thought went only as deep as some general sense that 18th century justice was summary and cruel – mixed with the idea that the poor and ‘vicious’ always got the rough end of the wedge.
But, as I was reminded, Broughton wasn’t of poor stock: his father had land; his son (this was something I didn’t know) became a surgeon and travelled the world). Yes, he had fallen into gambling and so on; but given his background, you would have thought his end unlikely.
Why, then? One reason – which I gave at the time, and have become more convinced of since, is that the last man in England to be gibbeted was to an extent a victim of his times. 1792 was an explosive year: the revolution in France was beginning to turn grisly; Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen were working to unite Catholics and Protestants against English oppression; the radical outpourings of Paine, Godwin and Wollstonecraft, reacting to the Establishment patriarchs like Edmund Burke, were voicing the sense that the spirit of freedom and emancipation would at last release the philosophies of the Enlightenment into the lives of all.
The response of the authorities, of course, was entrenchment and violent suppression – supported, of course, by those parts of the population who had something to lose, or were persuaded that they did. Societies of ‘Loyal Britons’ sprang to the defence of the realm against the French and whoever else was seen as threatening to subvert their way of life. Effigies of Thomas Paine were burned in villages and towns across the country.
And Spence Broughton, son of a farmer who had gone to the dogs (or the cocks at any rate), was hanged, dragged across country and strung up for all to see: a dire warning to anyone on the road who might be harbouring thoughts of discontent.
This meeting with his descendents has brought Spence Broughton back to the forefront of my mind. He is, I think, very much the symbol for those vilified in our own times: the rioter, the scrounger, the cheat. In this year’s Off the Shelf Festival in October, we will be returning to Hill Top Chapel for another reading of the poems; and Longbarrow Press is hoping to reissue them for the event. (Check the Happening page for details in due course.) I hope it will be a gathering for our times as much as for his.
June 21, 2012 § 3 Comments
In my son’s parents’ evening last night, trying to reassure his English teacher that we, and he, valued the subject (we’d put our feet in it by talking about his particular enthusiasm for science), I quipped that despite not enjoying English at school, I was now a poet! She looked a bit jaded.
Now Michael Gove (via the Daily Mail) has declared his intention to reintroduce O Levels. If he succeeds, my son and his peers would be the first to have a bash at it. Well, we’ll see: but these two things have got me wondering about creativity and the curriculum. My O Level English, as far as I remember, focused on developing functional skills – writing persuasively, responding to comprehension texts: writing poetry was something you largely left behind (suitably double-backed) on the primary school wall.
Things may have changed with the introduction of GCSEs – I have had no experience in schools, so I don’t know. I do have friends who work as Writers in Schools; and a writing development project called Signposts does great work with young writers in South Yorkshire. But both of these initiatives suggest that creative writing exists outside of the Key Stage 3 – 4 curriculum, and is consequently someone else’s concern.
Is this the case? If so, is this one of the reasons why creative writing – and the production of poetry in particular – is perceived by the majority of the population as something peripheral, lacking intrinsic value, even? Is the close analysis of texts (in the English Literature curriculum) deemed a more important skill to our society than the skills of production? Is this part of the increasing emphasis on consumption?
I hope not. I hope that those with more experience in secondary education than me will be able to show how the curriculum is a richer place, with English more closely aligned to other subjects – visual and performing arts, for example – which put creativity at the centre of things.
June 7, 2012 § 14 Comments
Driving the A17 across the Fens this morning, I retrod the same old comparisons between Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Apologies to the latter, I’m afraid: the journey always tends along the same emotional trajectory, as wending lanes, cobbstone villages and salt-scoured boards pointing ‘To the Sea’ are left behind, and the horizons draw back and back across damp green plains, polythene, all day breakfast stops and caravanserai.
So much for the acquisitional tourist’s approach – the reasons for those Islingtonians and Hampstovians who have miraculously survived the chill penury of the current collapse pitching up at Wells and Cley and Downham Market with their hampers and their Farrow & Ball. Cricket, nice beer, owls: who wouldn’t?
However, have a wander round the second-hand bookshops and art galleries of Norfolk (and there are many). Absolutely loads of ‘sketches’, ‘scenes’ and the like. Everyone thinking locally, and acting it. Which is ideal for that second home: somewhere to walk the dog and the kids, jog along the beach. No phone signals, even. But for poetry? Yes, I know, I was pushing the merits of Edward Thomas, that most local of poets, in the last post. Yet much of Thomas’ work derives its emotional power from a lifting of the eyes beyond the lanes and barns: to the bird-filled horizons of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, to the next spring, to the trenches.
And of course, Thomas moved through the landscape, by and large, on his feet. Rural England was more populous then – but walking through a territory would take him off-grid, as it were, for as long as he needed (for his art if not always for his peace of mind). Three miles could be a limitless expanse, let alone thirty.
When you turn onto the A17 outside King’s Lynn, it is sixty (largely single-carriaged) miles to Newark. The trucks draw together, the landscape spreads away, boundary lines grow fewer and less arbitrary (I’m reminded of the ways land is ‘sectioned’ in ‘New’ World territories), the idea of the farm shifts, upscaling from the human to the mechanistic (to the point where there appear to be no farmhouses). The birds along the road are predators and scavengers. There are no pastures: pigs predominate in their vast, bare shanties. There are huge churches: Lincolnshire villages were wealthy, once. But standing in this landscape, they are marooned.
But perhaps this vast emptiness of the Fens offers something to poets in today’s rushing world that the villages of Norfolk or Oxfordshire can no longer do (at least, in the many times when we don’t have the opportunity to get the boots on). Two hours’ traversing of an unpeopled Lincolnshire in a car probably won’t offer the emotional dilation of a heathland trek; but it does afford a raising of the eyes to the horizon.