A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 308

Poets who matter: No. 15 Ė Matthew Arnold

ROCHESTER Ė Thereís bad news on the poetry front, and you can bet if anyone gets shot it will be the messenger. The innocent bearer of tiding is, of course, Farmington Corner, which, of late, has cajoled poets of all stripes to throw their berets into the ring in the hope of being chosen as Rochester Poet Laureate No. 2.

Just last week, this very column confidently expected there would be hundreds of applicants for such a prestigious position, and with the Nov. 15 deadline closing fast, I called City Hall seeking an accurate number. Imagine my shock when the City Managerís secretary, Patty Kairo, answered, "One!"

"One?" I echoed in disbelief.

"One," said she.

So unless poets spill out of the woodwork in the closing hours, the selection committee will be in a tough spot, and the blame game will begin.

The city is at fault in my opinion. Not me. Iíve been a pillar of enthusiasm. Rochester has a website front page that has been preoccupied on alternating weeks with the gathering of dead leaves and telling voters to cast ballots at the polls. Now, some confused citizens think dead voters can gather at the polls and leave ballots.


The leaves are on the valley-paths,

The mists are on the Rhone Ė


(No! No! Not yet, Matthew! You come in a bit later Ö )

Beyond a sorry lack of municipal publicity, there is also the blunder of geographical restriction. Only poets who live or work in Rochester can apply for the laureate crown according to the new rules.

A lady called me up from Lebanon, Maine, recently. Declaring her interest as a poet, she said she always shopped in Rochester. Then there is the fine Farmington poet Paul Sprague, who went to night school in Rochester, the excellent Strafford poet Andrew Periale, who has performed many a puppet show in Rochester, and the poet/reciter extraordinaire John Duffy of Dover, whose spouting earlier this year, helped raise money for St. Charles Childrenís Home in Rochester. All nixed by living a few miles beyond an invisible, man-made line Ė the victims of that cursed New England disease, parochialism.

But enough of this sorry territorial business, and the likelihood of messengers being shot to avenge a small response. Letís reflect on a past turf disaster, and a poet (see premature intrusion above) whose work is fittingly melancholic - Matthew Arnold.

In high school, I memorized chunks of Sohrab and Rustum, in which a Tartar champion slays a Persian hero, only to discover the younger, dying warrior is his son. This epic had an affect on me 15 years later, when, as a Glasgow police officer assigned to run a project for the teenage gangs of a sprawling housing estate called Easterhouse, I was caught up, one night, in a ferocious and deadly battle.

For several years, the Drummy gang had been coming to the Friday night dances held in two huge corrugated tin halls called the Project, purpose-built by the Army. A numerically smaller group, the Aggro, had been accepted by the Drummy, but a third teenage gang, the Den-Toi, with whom the Aggro had a pact, remained the Drummyís mortal enemies.

One Friday, with about 150 teens in the dance hall, almost all, oddly composed of Drummy members, a kid ran to the entrance (where I always stood) and said the Toi were about to attack. Then he scooted off. As dusk fell, I walked over a grassy rise and down into Errogie Street and there, behind a row of house, ran slap into scores of teens, armed with bottles, rocks, sticks and a few swords.

"Itís okay. Itís only Big John," a face belonging to one of the Aggro informed the Toi leadership, before I could be beaned with a club.

"Pleased to meet everybody," I said with a mustered cheery naivety. "Somebody said there was a fight over here, but you punters seem all right. Iíll see youse later." These last few words, delivered as if to friends, were directed to the Aggro boys, and designed to buy me escape time.

I walked slowly back over the hill, aware that moving faster would trigger an atavistic smash-the-prey-to-pulp response. I reached the door of the Project, and closed it just as waves of Toi and Aggro charged towards the building. The noise inside was deafening as rocks crashed down on the tin roof.


This is the curse of life! That not

A nobler, calmer train

Of wiser thoughts and feelings blot

Our passions from our brain;


Right on cue, Mr. Arnold, sir! The score at that moment looked like: Wiser Thoughts 0 Passions 437.

Later, on reflection, I realized that the Drummy had an idea this assault was coming. Most unusually, a couple of boys had arrived on borrowed motorcycles, which I had parked inside the hall adjacent to the dance floor. Now they flew onto their bikes, circled round the hall to pick up speed, and then, as their friends opened the fire exit, they roared out of the building, smashing through the Toi ranks and off into Drummyland for reinforcements from the nearby Casbah pub.

The Toi broke off their siege of the Project and moved over to adjacent soccer fields to await a Drummy counter-attack. The dance being over, I headed out to the parking lot, ready to drive the Easterhouse Project van, which had been left unscathed, back to the west end of Glasgow. From over on the football pitches, in the dark, came the uproar of smashing glass, clashing sticks and the hate-filled curses of several hundred Scottish teens, as they substituted the frustrations of poverty, unemployment and unspoken hopelessness, with territorial aggression.

The battle took the form of alternate charges and retreats by both sides, and it was during one foray that Smut, the Toi leader, was struck on the head with a brick and fell. The Drummy counter-charged, and as the Toi drew back, the unlucky Smut was left behind and his life savagely finished off by people who, in many ways, were his brothers. In Sohrab and Rustum, Arnold reflects on such human fortune:


For we are all, like swimmers in a sea,

Poised on the top of a huge wave of fate,

Which hangs uncertain to which side to fall.

And whether it will heave us up on land,

Or whether it will roll us out to sea,

Back out to sea, to the deep waves of death Ö


After three of the Drummy were accused of Smutís murder, I gave evidence for two days at Glasgow High Court, talking not just about the events of that night, but giving insight into gang culture and motivations. The trial was widely reported, not only because it was another violent death in Easterhouse, but due to the ongoing clashes on the buses bringing rival gang supporters into the city center to hear the legal proceedings.

From the witness box, my eyes would occasionally shift to the public galleries from where a sea of young, grim faces followed the trial in a tense silence. At the end of my evidence, the judge thanked me for my illuminating input, but I felt no satisfaction. Referring to a young death, Arnold wrote:


But is a calm like this, in truth,

The crowning end of life and youth,

And when this boon rewards the dead,

Are all debts paid, has all been said?


A 20-year-old man had been killed, and a lot of people hurt because the Project was seen as favoring the Drummy and even the Aggro, to the exclusion of the Toi. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on there that they had heard about Ė the packed dances and indoor football to be sure, but also the ridge-walking, the rock-climbing and canoeing trips in the highlands.

On the steps of the pillared High Court, I listened to the Toiís grievances, and pledged that they, too, would be welcome to the Project, albeit, at first, on different days and evenings from the Drummy.

Smut would have a legacy - and that legacy would include some hair-raising fun, as it turned out.

Nov. 11-12, 2007



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