Posts Tagged ‘Sean O’Brien’

Another country

7 May 2012


I’ve had the miners’ strike more on my mind since I went to see the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Hayward Gallery a couple of weeks ago, because the exhibition includes his famous reenactment of The Battle of Orgreave, when police cavalry charged protesting strikers.

So when The Guardian published some poems from Jubilee Lines, edited by Carol Ann Duffy (she has commissioned a new poem for each of the 60 years of the Queen’s reign) I turned first to the mid-80s. Sean O’Brien, whom I’ve written about here before, a child of the north, had claimed 1985 with a tough and unforgiving poem called ‘Another Country’:

Whenever someone sagely says it’s time to draw a line,
We may infer that they’ve extracted all the silver from the mine.

O’Brien’s poem starts with a epigraph from Auden, ‘Get there if you can’, the title of a 1930 poem. Here’s an extract:

Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires;
Head-gears gaunt on grass-grown pit-banks, seams abandoned years ago;
Drop a stone and listen for its splash in flooded dark below…

Auden was born in York and brought up in Birmingham, but was fascinated by underground workings and mining machinery. This early poem – not included by him in his Collected Poems – was written on a visit to the north-east of England, where O’Brien now lives and works. It is one of several from the period that dealt with the decaying or lost landscapes of the early industrial revolution.

There are obvious echoes here of the industrial landscape that Britain has lost since Thatcher’s campaign de-industrialise the country (I use the word ‘campaign’ with care here) of which the calculated destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers was such an exemplary part. And echoes too, in O’Brien’s title, of the famous opening line of L.P. Hartley’s novel of loss, and of class antagonism. London, now, is the other country, as it milks the rest of Britain of resources.

But no matter what you do, history doesn’t vanish. (I had this argument once with an uncomprehending career coach who told me I could put the history I was embedded in to one side and simply ‘move on’ in the modern, deracinated, non-place manner. I was uncomprehending too). And this is how Sean O’Brien ends his poem:

Where all year long the battle raged, there’s “landscape” and a plaque,
But though you bury stuff forever, it keeps on coming back:

Here then lie the casualties of one more English Civil War,
That someone, sometime – you, perhaps – will have to answer for.

No matter how hard you try to tramp it down, the dirt insists on coming up through the roots.

The image at the top is a screenshot of Mike Figgis’ film of Deller’s reconstruction of The Battle of Orgreave, from the Bureaux blog, and is used with thanks.


Sean O’Brien’s Fireweed

31 August 2011

My mother asked me about a poem in Sean O’Brien’s most recent collection, November, so I sent her a view of it. It turned out that I’d misunderstood which poem she meant, so I ended up critiquing “Fireweed”, the first poem in the collection, instead. It’s a long time since I’ve done any literary analysis, and I enjoyed it; it surprised me how much more richness a little research generated. Here’s the poem:

Fireweed by Sean O’Brien

Look away just for a moment.
Then look back and see

How the fireweed’s taking the strain.
This song’s in praise of strong neglect

In the railway towns, in the silence
After the age of the train.

Sean O’Brien lectures in Newcastle, as it says in his biography, and he grew up in Hull (and later studied there), and this is a poem about industrial decline: “in the silence/ after the age of the train”. Without being too literal I imagine he is evoking the railway-building towns, Swindon, Derby, York, where there is now mostly silence.

Fireweed tells its own story, but it is, specifically, rosebay willowherb, a pioneer species which quickly colonises open or cleared land.  There’s something filmic in this, of course, in the weeds taking hold of the disused site. And fireweed is particularly associated with the railways, Wikipedia tells me: its expansion from local rarity to widespread phenomenon was because it followed the railway lines as the soil was turned up to lay the rails. Indeed, willowherb is mentioned in Edward Thomas’ railway poem Adlestrop’. The rails are gone but the flower, or weed is left.

So far, so elegiac. But this is given a twist, an extra layer of meaning, by the fourth line, “This song’s in praise of strong neglect”, which also says that fireweed has its virtues too. This is perhaps underlined by the title. When in flower fireweed brings forth, as Wikipedia also tells us, “fields of colour” (I think we’re invited implicitly to contrast the drabber browns and greys and blacks of the railway town). So strong neglect brings forth colour, but other virtues, too:  the virtues of nature being allowed to remake the world, of the silence that it brings, of the benefits of fallowness.

And finally, one more layer of meaning. Again, from my newfound knowledge of rosebay willowherb, it seems that its seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years, waiting once again for the soil and light conditions that are propitious for its growth. And perhaps he’s saying this too about the railway towns, that, with “strong neglect” they too might one day thrive in a new blaze of colour.

The picture of rosebay willowherb is from English Wild Flowers, and is used with thanks.