What’s it like to be a poet from Mexborough?
That’s a question I often get asked. I’ve always wanted to be a poet and my Mexborough roots are deep. I was born in the front room of the house I now live in – a stone-fronted terraced house on the main road through town that used to serve as the registry of births and deaths. I often think of the Mexborough people who passed through it to register births, marriages, and the deaths of men killed in pit accidents. There was no poetry in my family. As far back as anyone can remember all the men on both sides of my family were miners. Mexborough was defined by mining and, to some extent, still is. Although the town was predominantly industrial when I was growing up, all I had to do was to lift my eyes to see the fields and woods that surrounded it; and a wooded valley with a river running through it remains the inner landscape of my dreams. To get from the town to the countryside you had to use the ferry over the Don, and one of my earliest memories is of being pulled across the river to the other side. As I grew up that journey became symbolic, passing not only from town to country but also from control to freedom, from prose to poetry.
There were no poetry books – or books of any kind in our house. For that, I had to use the Carnegie Library which was, in its own way, a place of escape. But before I read poetry on the page I was exposed to it through the ear. My father had learned reams of poetry by heart at school and he used to recite it when he was getting ready to go out for a pint. In that way, I was introduced to some of the greatest poems in the language – Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Keats – by hearing rather than seeing them. As well as being a miner, my father was also a singer, and I used to accompany him to the working men’s clubs where he’d sit me at a table with a lemonade and a bag of crisps while he sang his way through the Great American Songbook. Those songs by the likes of Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter went into the mix too.
Then there was the history. Beyond the recent past, back in the mists, I was intrigued by the fact that the huge Dark Age Battle of the Ings was fought on the meadows just down from where I lived. The first poem I wrote, ‘Gargoyles in Winter’, was produced in response to the grotesque stone carvings around the tower of Mexborough church. From an early age, I was aware that the place where I lived had a rich and textured past, a past that was very much alive in the present. Looking back, I think the presence of the railway had something to do with me becoming a poet. The main line ran just past our house, and I used to lie awake listening as the trains rattled off to destinations east and west. That opened up the possibility of elsewhere, so important to the imagination, and to poetry too.
I lived in my imagination – a rich inner life fed by the sights and sounds of the town around me, the people of Mexborough and the broadness of their vowels. Coal arrived on the doorstep by the ton and women in scarves still scoured their windowsills. I went to Mexborough School and soon became aware that Ted Hughes had attended too. At the time, I was more interested in another poet who had been a pupil there, Harold Massingham, who had been born in Herbert Street and whose father was also a miner. I read his poem, ‘Black Bull Guarding Apples’, over and over and developed a strong connection that I was never to feel for Hughes. The importance to me was that two poets – and two excellent poets at that – had attended the same school, walked the same streets, and made the fabled crossing over the ferry.
I think, on reflection, it’s fair to say that Mexborough made me the poet that I am. After living a lifetime in different places all over the country, circumstances have brought me back to live in Mexborough. Much has changed. The Miner’s Strike of the mid-1980s proved to be a dividing line between the past and present, and the community I grew up in has all but disappeared. But the vitality of the people, the relish for language, the landscape of my childhood, and the invisible connections to the past are still there. The trains still criss-cross my dreams and the poems, inexplicably, keep coming.
Poet and Mexborough born and bred