Silence please

Solitude?  Winterton-on-Sea

Solitude? Winterton-on-Sea

 

Thanks to BBC Radio 4’s Lost Voices programme presented by Brian Patten, I have discovered poet Rosemary Tonks this weekend.

This poem in particular has had a powerful impact.  I was unable even to find it on the internet, but lucky enough to find it in an anthology pulled together by Neil Astley called ‘Stayling Alive’ and published by Bloodaxe Books (2001).

ADDICTION TO AN OLD MATTRESS

by Rosemary Tonks

No, this is not my life, thank God…

…worn out like this, and crippled by brain-fag;

Obsessed first by one person, and then

(Almost at once) most horribly besotted by another;

These Februaries, full of draughts and cracks,

They belong to the people in the streets, the others

Out there – haberdashers, writers of menus.


Salt breezes!  Bolsters from Istanbul!

Barometers, full of contempt, controlling moody isobars.

Sumptuous tittle-tattle from a summer crowd

That’s fed on lemonades and matinees.  And seas

That float themselves about from place to place, and then

Spend hours – just moving some clear sleets across glass stones.

Yalta:  deck-chairs in Asia’s gold cake; thrones.


Meanwhile…I live on…powerful, disobedient,

Inside their draughty haberdasher’s climate,

With these people…who are going to obsess me,

Potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know, it’s unforgiveable

For this is not my life

But theirs, that I am living.

And I wolf, bolt, gulp it down, day after day.

There is something about Tonks’ influences (cited as the likes of Rimbaud and Baudelaire in the Radio 4 programme, and a touch of the surreal), but in particular, her own story that I’m particularly drawn to.  Tonks has managed to pull off a feat many may plot, but none are able to pull off in public life.  Tonks completely disappeared from the radar screen.  Not just from view and media speculation about it, but from all contact.  Her professional world, her friends and her family.  There is speculation – but not so much that it will get in the way of whatever she has decided to do.  While I feel for some of those left behind, I have to say that I am mighty impressed.

It’s a tension I have felt in my own professional life.  In 2005, I did flee to the wilds of the dunes of the North-East Norfolk coast to find some semblance of sanity, renting a cottage in the village of Winterton-on-Sea for 18 months, before returning back to the smoke full time when I switched full-time from PR practice into lecturing in the subject.  

My current reading for pleasure list is again reflecting an interest in the twin ‘pleasures’ of solitude and silence, possibly because I’m gorging on the reverse in my place of work, nestled next to one of Europe’s busiest roundabouts at the Elephant and Castle.  ‘Solitude’ by Anthony Storr goes against the mainstream grain of society’s obsession with us ‘not belonging’, ‘A Book of Silence’ by Sara Maitland is one woman’s personal account of her search for silence, and ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald, which is much more than the unassuming travelogue novel it purports to be.  The latter begins ominously.  “In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work.”  I am not alone in my affinity with Sebald, as Will Self will testify, and not just for the geographic closeness to Winterton.

For most, silence is something to be avoided at all costs.  For me, it seems to be elusive.

It is currently the time between the spring and summer terms at the university.  I was reminded while listening to Frank Field MP (by accident, I hasten to add) on another Radio 4 programme that those who are ‘believers’ have ready made, annual periods in the calendar for reflection.  Perhaps I am suffering from not having such regular periods factored into my life, or having reminders to do so.  The period is an extremely busy one, with the bulk of the annual marking of assessment exercises taking place during this period, as well as preparation of materials for next term, and the annual ‘Exam Boards’, as well as the every-day ‘noise’ associated with being course director, not to mention the backdrop of more fundamental re-organisation going on at the college, and national higher education debates.  The refrain, “Hope you are having a nice holiday?” is categorically guaranteed to wind me up to the extreme at such a time.  Although I’m free of teaching for four weeks, my workload is probably just as heavy.

Rosemary Tonks has arrived at a time of extreme restlessness for me on professional planes between ‘PR’ and ‘Education’ to which I shall probably return.  I want to whisper Tonks’ name to a few more people that matter, for giving me the temerity to ask myself some difficult questions, and to dance with the answers.  The end of her poem, ‘The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas’, whilst not sounding particularly positive on first listen, captures my need to saddle up.

“- All this sitting about in cafes to calm down

Simply wears me out.  And their idea of literature!

The idiotic cut of the stanzas; the novels, full up, gross.

 

I have lived it and I know too much.

My cafe nerves are breaking me

With black, exhausting information.”

The St Etienne video feels like a perfect backdrop to some of the Tonks poetry.  Returning ‘after-hours’ to the seedy scenes of where some of the noise of the day has been playing out, so that we can reflect more fully on what the hell is going on.  It is a perfect-fit, because like Tonks’ poetry, I don’t think there is any sense of condescension or criticism, but a bright, sense of energy.  Wherever she is, I’d like to think she doesn’t have access to the internet, but I would still like to wish her well, and say ‘thank you’.

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