A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 309

Poets who matter: No. 16 – William Wordsworth

ROCHESTER – When we left the search for a Rochester Poet Laureate a couple of weeks back, close to application deadline, only one poet had thrown a beret into the ring, when hundreds had been expected, and now that the deadline is past, I can confide that the final applicants can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand.

This has triggered not just dismay among the selection board, but fascinating rounds of e-mailing about what to do next – select a poet laureate from the dribble of respondents, or enlarge the geographic area in which a poet may live to include the communities abutting Rochester.

Expansion of the catchment area has produced the liveliest e-debate. Some folks are fine with the four towns that share a boundary with Rochester (Farmington, Milton, Strafford and Barrington), but are rigorously opposed to making anyone from the cities of Somersworth or Dover eligible. To the neutral, fair-minded and inquisitive observer (like me, for instance) it would seem these opponents of neighborly inclusion, are driven not by logic, but by deep-rooted fears and passions that invite Freudian exploration and Jungian analysis.

According to one scholarly expert, the exercise director of a Gold’s Gym, people can become pretty territorial in their comfort zone, and may wax feisty if they perceive someone has come three inches too close to them in a floor exercise. This could explain why the two poets among the selectors are so adamant about keeping Dover and Somersworth at a distance.

A quick skim through the field of taxonomy, in addition, shows that overpopulation prompts environmental stress – thus, if Rochester has 400 poets (and some local versifiers may feel that is quite enough, thank you) they could get spooked out if 175 poets from Somersworth and 380 poets from Dover started clumping northwards.

Thus, on reflection, I think these bizarre but very real apprehensions must be taken into account when deciding what comprises greater Rochester, before things bubble into open conflict. I can just envisage angry knots of rival poets from Rochester, Dover and Somersworth facing off in some field off Blackwater Road, shrieking barbed similes and lobbing poisonous metaphors at each other, mocking the other camps’ alliteration and assonance, deriding their imagery. Before you knew it, it would be reported on the police log, and this week’s poet who matters, William Wordsworth, himself a chosen laureate, would shake his old head:


Discourse was deemed Man’s noblest attribute,

And written words the glory of his hand;

Then followed Printing with enlarged command

For thought – dominion vast and absolute

For spreading truth, and making love expand.

Now prose and verse sunk into disrepute

Must lacquey a dumb Art that best can suit

The taste of this once-intellectual Land.


This tripartite rivalry reminds me more than a little of Easterhouse, an easterly outpost of Glasgow, home to 40,000 people and the site of bitter, occasionally fatal, teenage turf wars between the Drummy, Toi and Aggro. I was assigned there in 1975 as a police officer to run a building, the Easterhouse Project, which had been erected by the Army with the aim of quelling the conflicts – a tall order when the root cause was not so much a superfluity of poets as a dearth of jobs.

In 1980, following the death in battle of a Den-Toi leader called Smut and a subsequent high court murder trial that put me in touch with his gang members, my resolve to include them in the Project’s activities was greater than the Drummy’s determination to keep them out in the cold. At first the Toi came on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to play indoor soccer and snooker, pump weights and crank music, accompanied by their allies, the Aggro. Later, an agreement was hatched with the Drummy – the Monday, Wednesday and Friday crowd – whereby all three gangs came five afternoons a week, with me, for a while, frisking everyone at the door to ensure no razors and knives, until trust was established.

The older Toi boys, like the Drummy teens, were keen to get out of Glasgow on an outdoor trip, and so early on a sunny summer Saturday a volunteer in his car and I in the Project van, drove a dozen of the lads north into Glencoe, a narrow glen with rugged mountains on either side. Unfamiliar with such daunting scenery, almost all of them elected to stay in their comfort zone (remember that?) and play football beside Loch Leven. The volunteer remained on the valley floor with the ball players who, ironically, were unaware that the gash in a mountainside high above them was Ossian’s Cave – Ossian, the mythic balladeer of whom Wordsworth wrote:


He sang of battles, and the breath

Of stormy war, and violent death;


One Toi member, though, an intrepid 18-year-old called Tommy Blythe, showed an adventurous streak, and together we climbed the thrilling, though not technically difficult Curved Ridge on the imposing Buchaille Etive Mor at the head of the glen. This route affords a great view of the famous Rannoch Wall up which thread some of Scotland’s classic rock climbs, like January Jigsaw and Agag’s Groove. We reached the summit of this 3,000-foot granite mountain by noon, and were rewarded with a view to the west of the Atlantic Ocean clear out to the hazy blue Hebridean islands. Northwards, across Glencoe, at eyelevel, were the rocky pinnacles of the Aonach Eagach Ridge, beyond that, the Mamore Mountains and a little further off still, Scotland’s highest summit, the bulky Ben Nevis.

The panorama on this cloudless day was spectacular and Tommy was dumbfounded.

"What a fuckin' view," he shouted at last, adding with a note of sincere disappointment, "It’s a pity there’s nothing tae see. Ur there nae nudey camps or nothing?"

Wordsworth, on one of his Scottish sojourns, wrote At the Head of Glencoe, which starts thus:


Doubling and doubling with laborious walk,

Who, that has gained at length the wished-for Height,

This brief this simple wayside Call can slight,

And rests not thankful?


William, meet Tommy.

We sat a while by a cairn, eating sandwiches and drinking a flask of tea, before scrambling down the Buchaille by an easier route. On reaching the van, we drove back down the glen to rendezvous with the soccer players, and encountered a dozen gloomy faces. Tragedy had struck!

It seemed that after Tommy and I left them in the morning, and realizing that a hot day was brewing, the Toi had pooled all their money and the volunteer had driven into Glencoe village on a beer run. When the driver returned, they had cunningly placed the beer into the chill waters of Loch Leven, planning to drink cold lager after a ferocious three-hour of soccer in the field nearby.

Had they but been familiar with Wordsworth’s The Blind Highland Boy, they would never have made a blunder of such colossal magnitude.


Thus he lived by Loch Leven’s side

Still sounding with the sounding tide …


Key word: tide. Yes, Loch Leven, although several miles from the coast, was an arm of the sea and therefore tidal. When the Toi, overheated and parched at the end of the game, had gone to retrieve their cans, they found that the sea level had risen up five or six feet and the swirling waters had swept their lager out of sight.

I knew that if the Drummy back in Glasgow ever found out what had happened, the tenuous peace between the two gangs would crumble with the first derisory remark. So I sprung for six cans of Tennant’s, which were passed around disconsolately, and we drove back down to the city with the promise that what happened in Glencoe stayed in Glencoe - and for 27 years I kept my word.


Nov. 24-25, 2007


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