A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 293

Poets who matter: 9. Algernon Swinburne

FARMINGTON – Goodly news for poetry fans comes from Farmington’s very own president of the Poetry Society of New Hampshire, Pat Frisella.

She is delighted to announce that Cynthia Huntington of Hanover has been confirmed as the state’s new poet laureate, after Gov. Craig Benson accepted the nomination from a panel assembled by her PSNH crowd.

On the other hand, Rochester seems no closer to having a poet laureate than it was two or three city managers ago, and when we spoke to Farmington dog officer and published poet Eugene P. Elander the other day, he had still not received an application form from City Hall, despite the best efforts of this column.

Meanwhile, Rochester’s private sector in the shape of Slim’s Tex Mex Cantina, wearying of local government’s big cultural talk and no action, has introduced poetry readings on Sundays, and stirred interest among the biker fraternity. Bravo, Anthony Ejarque!

But let’s be charitable to former Mayor Walter Hoerman and assume that, freshly relieved of the burden of local office and, as a physician, the enormous responsibility for stamping out tobacco use in the northern hemisphere, he’ll now find time to nominate the city’s first poet laureate within months rather than years.

In the interim, let us keep our poetic appetites whetted with another visit to that most inspirational of spots – Blackhill in Glasgow - where I plodded as a policeman some 30 years ago.

This time I would like to pay tribute to the eccentric genius Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose description of the land’s drear struggle with the encroaching waves in By The North Sea, had echoes for me in the blight of post-industrial decline laying siege to the lives of Blackhill’s residents.

“Far fields that a rose never blew in,

 Wan waste where the winds lack breath …”

After I had helped to found Blackhill Wolves Youth Club (see Poets Who Matter, Robert Garioch and Walt Whitman) there were opportunities to take the housing project kids to places where wastes were not quite as wan and where brisk Highland winds might cleanse their lungs of the foul stench from Provan gasworks.

One such chance came along in 1974, when a unit of the British Army arranged with Glasgow Police to take some youngsters to the ski slopes of Glenshee for an adventurous long weekend. I got a call from Police HQ to select 10 boys from Blackhill Wolves and to accompany them on the trip.

We set off from Glasgow in military trucks for the long trip to the central highlands and arrived at the Army’s Youth Center huts that evening, with only a minor incident en route. Near Blairgowrie, young Harry Gordon had lifted a canvas flap in the back of the truck and yelled out, “Hey, yer ma’s a cow!” which, in Glasgow parlance, translates into, “Your mother is a prostitute,” and is a very common term of rebuke.

After slapping Harry on the ear, I keeked out of the flap expecting to see a furious young girl in the truck’s wake, but only spotted a calf looking over a hedge.

In Glenshee, the Army cooks had a hearty meal waiting for everyone, and after some mess hall banter and TV, the lads, unaccustomed to mountain air, were surprisingly ready for their bunks before 10 p.m.

I slipped out of the barracks and across to the bar of a neighboring hotel, where, over a beer, I got talking to a reporter and photographer from the Daily Record, Scotland’s national newspaper. They were passing through the ski slopes on the way back to Glasgow, after covering a North Sea oil exploration story.

As a result of our chat, next day the journalists, sniffing a feature story, called their editor and delayed returning to Glasgow in order to take a picture of the Blackhill boys, the army instructors and me on the lower ski slopes of Glenshee.

The ensuing newspaper article detailing the trip was published with a huge photograph on the center pages and headlined Winter Wonderland.

“And many a crag full-faced against the storm,

 The mountain where thy Muse's feet made warm …”

                          Ben Jonson – Algernon Swinburne

(English playwright Ben Jonson made a tour of the Highlands in 1618-19)

*       *       *

A couple of weeks after my return to Glasgow, a letter addressed to Constable Nolan arrived at Blackhill Police Station. It seemed to have been triggered by the Daily Record feature.

The writer’s style was one of rambling praise for Glasgow policemen in general and me in particular, and was peppered with references to feet.

Jim Campbell, the ostensible author, gurgled admiration for my youth club work and, offered to express his gratitude by licking my boots and those of all other officers on the force.  “Uh-oh,” thought I.

Then Jim asked about my foot size for the purpose of knitting socks, and at this point I guessed I was the victim of a hoax from some other officer in Blackhill Station.

I wondered, too, if the policeman was familiar with Swinburne, because it is hard to turn pages of his verse without running slap-bang into feet.

Take Chorus from Atalanta:

“Fleeter of foot than the fleet-foot kid…”

 Or from the famous Etude Réalistique:

“A baby's feet, like sea-shells pink

 Might tempt, should heaven see meet,

 An angel's lips to kiss, we think,

 A baby's feet.” 

Or in Laus Veneris:

“Trodden as grapes in the wine press of lust,

 Trampled and trodden by the fiery feet.”

Yup, this letter was from a Swinburne-reading japester.

So I played along, and dashed back a note to “Jim Campbell” with my shoe size, and for good measure added glove, collar and hat sizes, to cover all other possible fetishes.

What a blunder!

By return mail came an eight-page hand-written blather about socks and shoes and boots. Religion had crept in too, and Jim made an urgent request to meet and help me find God.

I confirmed his existence by making a call to the Lanarkshire address, and slamming the phone down immediately a voice asked, “Hello? Who is this?”

"Dear Jim," I penned that very day, "It is with mixed feeling that I write. Sad that my time in Blackhill is at an end, but filled with hopes for the future. On Saturday I am flying to Venezuela to take up a post as Welfare Officer in the shanty town of Puerta la Cruz. Write c/o the Divine Light Mission there."

That put him off my trail for a number of years.

*       *       *

In 1975, the police transferred me from Blackhill to work as a youth center director in gang-ridden Easterhouse, Glasgow’s largest housing project. It was a task taken over by the police after traditional social workers had run into trouble. Over the next seven years I became very experienced in working with gang kids and lowering the murder rate – but that’s another set of tales.

One Sunday, during this period, I appeared as a “youth expert” on a BBC TV program to discuss the links between urban kids, unemployment, crime and vandalism. Among the viewing audience, I guess, was Jim the Foot Fetishist.

On the day after the program was transmitted, I was at home in the West End of Glasgow listening to the rain battering my windowpanes, when a knock came to the door. I opened it and there stood a bedraggled young man in a see-through plastic raincoat.

"I must come in! I must apologize," he said, oozing water, and pushing by me into the living room.

"What’s your name,” I demanded, astonished that this stranger was now on my couch.

"Jim Campbell," he answered, causing a dusty red danger flag to suddenly ping up inside my head.

 I made an unprintable reply, grabbed him by the coat, and despite his spirited struggle, fired him out the door.  

Looking through my keyhole, I saw a sodden silhouette, sadly shaking his head in the lashing rain, as he retreated down the path.

But it was a day when caution outweighed pity, and I knew that if I were not to be plagued for half a lifetime by this poor, crazed sock-knitter, I would have to go deeper underground.

Some time later, I arrived in Farmington, New Hampshire, where:

“The night is broken northward; the pale plains

 And footless field of sun-forgotten snow…”

                                           - Algernon Swinburne

Feb. 8, 2004


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