By Arthur Berry
Introduction by Arthur Berry dated as 1993 so reckon publication same year or one after.
No isbn and I can’t remember what price I paid about four years ago. I bought it in a small art shop in Longton or Burslem, I believe, one of the ‘Five Towns’ round Stoke on Trent.
87 poems over 131 pages, including frontispiece and index.
I haven’t labelled this as a Graph Review as it is most unlikely copies are available easily.
Arthur Berry, born in Smallthorne, North Staffordshire in 1925, son of a Bricklayer and a Publican’s daughter. The blurb on the back cover offers, plus a brief resume of his working career, as an artist, lecturer in painting.
I include the last paragraph of his own words of introduction: (I was advised by the shop that I should read, or be read to, in the local accent of North Staffs. I fear I failed on both counts but nonetheless having visited the towns of his area I have a fair mental picture of the places if not the accent…… and to be honest the need for accent never worried!)
“This then is a rough account of the times I have lived in, and I recognise it as the main theme of my work. I did not consciously think about it at the time, as I wrote my poems but it must have seeped in – as did various bits of daft, thank goodness.”
Arthur Berry 1993
First observations on reading is the good humour touching much of the verse, though dark. The humour is filtered within far darker tones such as disillusion, disappointment and even anger at what his surroundings had become. Observation in spades as to be expected from a painter with a quickness and lightness of touch for words that carry the scene in a bluff and gritty manner. The poems move around many places and sights though characters are often in the limelight and everywhere is the same gritty, eloquent, matter-of-fact delivery.
Rhythm, rhyme and half-rhyme aplenty though nicely balanced in poems of differing levels of scheme and length. (Acres of solid rhyme-schemes are not my favourite so Berry suits me well!) No date-order given to the poems. The variation in lengths is appealing for the reader (me). The shorter poems may be 16 lines and the longest about 90 lines while many sit comfortably on a single page, more or less. No glossary but most local words are obvious in meaning.
Time, change, levels of sadness, maybe at the losses of lifestyle and a touch of bitterness through the telescope of time where hardship-visible has been turned into hardship almost invisible but certainly more complicated, are all there. Especially where community/society has been eroded by change industrial change. Demolition and ruination run from the start of the collection but all are progressed through his verse with the spotlight of a painter. In his own introduction he points out that he discovered his overall ‘theme’ while reading through the verses some years after they were written. ‘Change’ weighed heavily, maybe the failure of it to improve more so.
I have been visiting this area some twelve years and the regeneration of the last few years has been enormous. Arthur Berry must have lived through the years when the pottery kilns stopped smoking until even the great china factories, distribution warehouses and painting shops slowly declined and closed. Whole areas collapsing into disrepair and streets in neglect. He wrote particularly of the old and loss of, a community, its housing and livelihood. Some names, some workshops still exist and the few surviving seem to prosper but his view was different, earlier than mine. He saw the decline happening, I have only seen at its lowest and its recovery. Many of the old terraces he would have walked around are gone and now replaced with new housing although some streets of terraces are being rescued, refurbished slowly to honour the history of the place. He saw their terrible decline and demolition, wrote about the losses but within his verse was the parallel of his own losses of youth as well as his memories. I have to say that very few of his memories seem to be rose-tinted, just remembered for what they were. What replaced his icons of memory will now have to wait for another time, another writer or painter.
His poems cite street and pubs, it is a very local book but with sentiments that many people will recognise if they lived in a seriously declining neighbourhood. He is sometimes harsh in his depiction of people, of the labouring, working class and their environs, the drinking and the mess, but times and lives were often hard. Maybe his eye caught only the jaundiced side of his world.
The very first poem. In This Place, Creates a sombre mood yet bodes well for the collection.
Memorable others are: How to Paint a Picture of Nile Street and:
Dandelions Title poem: p18
Where the end of the wall
And the waste ground meet
At the back of the canal
And Navigation street
Dandelions bold as brass
Grow among the bitter grass
In this place of empty chapels and aborted kilns
By the still smouldering fires
That burn the mattresses of the recently dead
These sour yellow flowers raise their heads
Damp rags suns that shine
On the sides of a lost loop line,
Among wild lupins and cinders
Fed on the dried excrement of dogs
Among the canals wet clinging fogs
Hard flower suns that gleam
By the edges of the poisoned stream,
Where the hiss and slip
Of a rat, nuzzles against the dead body of a cat
Among the slime and burning lime
And down in the flattened cemetery
Where my drunken uncles lie,
Over the iron gate
Into a bland white sky
Ghosts of these rag suns are blown away
Into the passing traffic of the day.
Another, The Procession, page 19, leaks nostalgia
The Hoppo and The Bus Shelter are party to several others that show bleak caricatures of people. Often, descriptions are highly focused but bleak. Nature frequently creeps into his poetry but is often succumbed or overridden by the smoke of urban exhausts, hardship and disrepair. Arthur Berry highlights the last section of his collection saying the moorlands, countryside, outside his towns had some effect in the following poems but even here they tend to suffer an overspill from man, even the countryside itself!….. except for Wrong Category, and The Apple Tree, which have a gentler touch.
Maybe you might see mostly depression in these poems, in all areas and meanings but there are lighter moments, touches of beauty in the drab; humour in the seemingly continuous difficulty he sees. Or rather I read memory and nostalgia and humour tucked into some outrageous descriptions. All images seem ‘true’ as they are drawn by a painter who only describes the backstreets, the ‘kitchen sinks’ or the Dicken’s-like scenes that should have gone years ago but in fact never will.
If all the kittens
Our cats once had
Grew into cats
By now they would have
Found their way to London
And in the tall white houses
Round the squares
Passing on the stairs
Would say to each other
With some concern
Where are all these
Damn cats coming from.
After finishing this collection, the above poem and between its lines, says a lot about the man I imagine him to be. Perhaps his brush is aimed elsewhere! Thank you, Arthur Berry, for poems with many layers like a painting, much to see and more to explore.
Copyright remains with copyright holders of Arthur Berry.