20-24 July Northampton
Just got back from a demanding few days in my old town of Northampton. Went up on Sunday – a nice sunny ride on the bard-bike through the Cotswolds – to take part in the Bardic Picnic, an event organised by John Morrisey for the Bardic Chair of Northampton. I was asked to be the judge, which was a honour but, typical of the town, no one entered. There was some good performers on the day – local musicians and poets – but nobody was willing to make the commitment to be the Bard for a year and a day. This is what often cuts the wheat from the chaff, and distinguishes Bardic Chairs from the Slam scene. It’s not just about turning up and winning on the day – it’s about being able to serve your community for the coming year. Despite this disappointment, and lack of a good-sized crowd, it was still a pleasant afternoon for those pleasant. For once, it remembered to be summer and the sun shone. There were some old friends there – Justin and Jimtom, both who deserve the title ‘Bard of Northampton’. I was relieved in a way they hadn’t entered as I would’ve been forced to make a difficult decision! It was very poignant, being at the event, which was next to Delapre Abbey – my sanctuary as a child. I spent the majority of my childhood over there, day-dreaming by myself, and now here I was, performing with others. I read out two poems: my Northampton poem, ‘Born of the People’s Strength’ and ‘Roaming Home’, to tie-in with the Bardic Chair theme of ‘coming home’. I was interviewed with John by a local film-maker. The first attempt was difficult against the backdrop of drunken music coming from the stage, so we repaired to the ‘grove’, as I call it, inside the wilderness gardens of the Abbey. Here, we could hear ourselves think at least! John was wiped out, because he had practically organised this event single-handedly. He had done all he could, but it was clear the Bardic Chair idea wasn’t going to take off in such a town, despite its abundance of local talent. There’s a good music scene, some great wordsmiths, but the ‘Bard’ thing is perhaps too esoteric or exotic for most to get their heads around or accept. The town has endemic cynicism, and sarcasm is the default attitude/defence mechanism. No one there likes anyone else to succeed – perhaps because it highlights there ‘failure’ or lack of ambition, and so there try to bring anyone down who tries. A bard would have a hard job there – they would get a severe ribbing wherever they went. It is, on the whole, a very working class prosaic place. Not a place conducive to flights of fancy – unless your on some drug-induced high like Alan Moore! He, if anyone, is the Bard of Northampton in all but name. He has tapped into its dark soul, and like John Clare on the Fens, found inspiration in the most unpromising of soil.
When the event wound down, things degenerated when kids were allowed to play with the microphone and started singing painful pop tunes or nursery rhymes. It got excruciating, so I made my exit as quickly as I could. It was time for some dinner anyway, and I made my way along the drive to my Mum’s, just around the corner. There I caught up with her over some tea.
The following day, it was time to attend to business. The other main reason I was up in Northampton was to help with scattering my Dad’s ashes and celebrating what would have been his seventieth birthday on Wednesday. I had also offered to help lay my Mum’s patio – as we needed it for the party.
However, on that Monday things moved unexpectedly fast – my Mum decided she wanted to scatter the ashes then and there. I was still finishing my lunch. When my sister Julie had arrived we had discussed what to do, and it seemed we had agreed to scatter them either Tues afternoon or Wed morning. Suddenly we were doing it right away – my Mum and sister having changed their minds. I was annoyed, because it felt rushed and not a consensus decision. But I found myself going with Mum and Dad’s ashes in Julie’s car over there. It was a beautiful sunny day at least.
Afterwards, we went for a much needed cuppa in the tearooms. I found a poetry book about gardens and read one out that seemed appropriate. I gave the book to Mum as a consoling ‘souvenir’, wishing her the ‘solace of gardens’. After that, it was difficult to do anything. I was numb. Wandered over the Rec to the Co-op, posted the letter I had written to Jenny (I had visited Delapre earlier that day) and then I decided to go for a walk around the lake – the ‘gravel pits’ – where Dad used to take the dogs for a walk. This would allow me time to remember him and reflect at my leisure. Events had moved too fast for my liking. I was expecting a three day cycle, but now it felt like I could go back already. Certainly my heart had gone out of the party. What was the point of arranging something when decisions were ignored or changed around at the last minute? I’m all for spontaneity, but when you’re organisng an event you need some consensus. My spirits were low, but I was saved by a visit from Jimmy, a great bloke and neighbour – an old drinking pal of Dad’s. He invited me along to watch a pool match that night at the King Billy. It was just what I needed – something down-to-earth, a distraction. It was good to watch the match, chat with the Golden Horse team, and have a beer or two.
The next day I got stuck into the patio, helping Norman – a kind friend of my Mum’s, who with his wife Helen had done loads on the house. It was satisfying to focus on hard physical work for once – and achieve something solid and practical. That night I stayed in and relaxed, feeling fatigued in a good way.
The next day would have been Dad’s seventieth, and so we planned a party for him. The wake had been suitably sad, and so we wanted this to be more an upbeat celebration of his life. I had been working on an elegy for Dad – only now was I able to put pen to paper, six months after the funeral.
That morning, I awoke early and finished off the patio, then got ready for the party. I blew up some ballons and put up a banner. We dug out a picture I had drawn of Dad, and placed it in a chair at the head of the table. Julie turned up after work and helped make some sandwiches. A handful of others turned up – Mum didn’t want a big gathering – and we had quite a pleasant time, sitting in the sun on the new patio. I read out my elegy and it seemed to go down well. People laughed or nodded when they recognised something about Dad. This was a vindication of my bardic path – bards would traditionally composed elegies. I think I did him justice – praising his mighty spirit, ‘warts and all’, rather than sycophantically making him out to be perfect. People only seem to achieve perfection when they die, whereas in life we are usually dysfunctional, flawed, human.
The following morning I was keen to get back – I was meant to be giving a talk in Dorchester that night – but my bike had other ideas. A bolt sheared off just as I reached the roundabout at the top of the London Road (near Queen Eleanor’s Cross – another memorial to a lost loved one; a surprisingly touching gesture from Edward Ironshanks, who sought to crush revolt in Wales with his ‘ring of iron’ fortresses). It seems the town was trying its best to keep me – but Norman came to the rescue. I managed to limp back to his place, and he set to work – the amazing Mr Fix-it! I knew if anyone could sort it out, he could. It was with relief I finally hit the road, making it back two and half hours later than planned, tired, but relieved to be back home.