A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 307

Poets who matter: No. 14 – Walter de la Mare

Come all o’ ye doggerelists, verse-mongers, too

Poetasters, duff rhymers, the whole scribbling crew,

A neat little number’s just waiting for you,

No need to pen lines if you’re Laureate Two!


There is only a week left in which to a) grab a Rochester Poet Laureate application form, b) puff up your qualifications, c) concoct a fictional plan to drench the citizenry in verse, and d) get that sucker handed back in to City Hall before the Nov. 15 deadline.

After that, just sip a latte and wait for the call from the selection committee informing you that, from hundreds of applicants, you’ve been chosen as the Lilac City’s second poet laureate, with a two-year reign stretching to the end of 2009, or even longer, should you actually do something. A crown of laurels, statewide fame, a stipend of $500 a year and life in a hammock!

This week’s poet who matters (though not to the fashionistas), Walter de la Mare, was lucky enough to receive a Civil List pension at the age of 35. This allowed him to retire from his post of oil company numbers-cruncher, lie in his hammock, and crank out poems for several decades.

Thirty years ago, as a police officer, I was assigned to a massive Glasgow housing estate called Easterhouse, where territorial gang culture and teenage unemployment were endemic. This job of running the Easterhouse Project certainly had its stressful days, and thus I would sometimes recall de la Mare’s lines as a soothing mental yoga that didn’t involve stumping up 50 quid to the Maharashi for some voguish personal mantra.

My friend Duncan Harvie, who worked as a planner in the construction industry was, like myself, a keen hill-walker and rock-climber, and so we decided to start taking teenagers out of Glasgow and onto the highland hills. The idea was to let teens discover that adrenalin rushes existed beyond the vicious, sometimes fatal clashes between the Drummy, the Den Toi and the Aggro; that exhilaration was possible without the flashing lights of police cars and the wail of ambulances.

Eerily writing before the carnage of World War 1, de la Mare, in Keep Innocency opened with the lines:


Like an old battle, youth is wild

With bugle and spear and counter cry,

Fanfare and drummery, yet a child

Dreaming of that sweet chivalry,

The piercing terror cannot see.


Our first sojourn was to the Trossachs, and a weekend of rock-climbing on nearby Ben A’an (about 50 miles north of Glasgow) with just two members of the Drummy, Gerry Murray and Smeal O’Neil. Ben A’an rises from the shores of Loch Achray, and on its upper slopes are a series of short cliffs containing named climbs. The First 30 – a 30-foot high schist wall is the starting test, and Smeal, a skinny but determined kid, once roped up, scaled it with exultation. Gerry, although a tougher lad, didn’t do so well.

Later a fascinating skirmish broke out - Gerry held Smeal down on the ground for a long time, as dominance was silently reestablished, after the upset based on climbing ability. Round the campfire, that evening, we chuckled over it, all four of us a bit wiser about pecking orders, the danger of triumph ceremonies and what generally makes people tick

These trips into the rugged and beautiful parts of Scotland became popular with the Drummy, especially after the Prince Charles Trust awarded the Easterhouse Project funds for a new12-seater van, and we raised money for tents and more camping gear. Every expedition became a learning experience.

Bainy, for example, while camped in Glen Nevis on a starry night that gave way to lashing rain, found it was better to hide money from his fellow gang members in a dry sock than stash it under a sopping boulder, evoking de la Mare’s words


There is wind where the rose was;

Cold rain where the sweet grass was;

And clouds like sheep

Stream o’er the steep

Grey skies where the lark was.


And later that day, the Drummy boys discovered there was no shame in retreat, when blinding snow squalls swept over Ben Nevis, just as they were within striking distance of the summit of Scotland’s highest mountain.

One of the most memorable trips took place on Saturday, June 3, 1978. Duncan and I booked a party of Drummy and Aggro boys into Glencoe Youth Hostel, and arranged in the evening, at the end of a hike, for them to watch Scotland play their opening game in the World Cup. The route for the boys was an east to west traverse of the Aonach Eagach, a spectacular five-mile ridge walk along the north side of the glen with, in places, dramatic drops of almost 3,000 feet on both sides.

To ensure the teenagers scrambled over the rocky pinnacles safely, we had packed a climbing rope, so that we could set up hand lines at the most daunting parts. Lucky we did so. When the trail narrowed to a razor edge, one kid, Tumshy, found that he suffered from vertigo. Progress slowed to a crawl, literally, and as the day wore on, Duncan and I decided that he would press ahead with the main party, and I would stay back with Tumshy and proceed at his snail’s pace. Two things were in our favor - the weather was set fair, and the daylight in Scotland, in June, holds until well after 10 p.m.

I learned something about bravery, that day. Shaking with fear, and being led slowly along the most spectacular ridge in mainland Britain by a rope, Tumshy displayed a dogged determination to keep going, when lesser kids would have frozen. His mind was set to get off that ridge and see Scotland kick Peru’s butt in the World Cup.

The opening lines of de la Mare’s Courage were particularly apt:


O heart, hold thee secure

In this blind hour of stress,

Live on, love on, endure,

Uncowed, though comfortless.


There is one tricky opportunity to descend from the Aonach Eagach without completing the whole traverse. It’s called the Great Stone Shoot, over 2,000 feet of loose rocks called scree, and down there we went – Tumshy going first, like an immensely cautious upturned crab, and me behind, carefully feeding out the rope. It took almost two hours but he made it, and when we reached the road, Duncan was there to pick us up. We sped to a nearby hotel’s television set where we joined the others and watched in utter dismay as Peru thrashed Scotland 3-1. "Where the fuck's is Peru?" is all the Easterhouse boys could ask in their state of shock.

Duncan, I noticed, was silently reciting his secret Maharishi fifty quid mantra. Unfortunately, de la Mare, being English, had no words of solace to offer everyone else.

Meanwhile, back in Easterhouse, one of the Drummy’s parents hurled his television set off the verandah and down into the street in disgust, as neighbors cheered their approval. Vinyl copies of a song – We’re on the March with Ally’s Army (Ally McLeod was Scotland’s football manager) - that was sitting on top of the Scottish hit parade, immediately went on sale in a Dumbarton Road record store for a derisory one penny each. An embittered fan, as reported in the Daily Record, rushed in, bought the entire stock, and chewed lumps out of them in public. Even gang battles hit a low ebb as the Scottish nation went into several days of mourning.

But the lull in hostilities was far from permanent, as we shall see in the next episode of Poets who matter: No. 15 – Matthew Arnold.


Nov. 3, 2007


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