Michael Bartholomew-Biggs muses on ways in which his poetic preferences may have been shaped by two of John Arlott’s poems.
This year’s centenary of the birth of the journalist and broadcaster John Arlott has already been marked by a number of tributes. Arlott is most widely remembered for his cricket commentaries on TV and radio (or “wireless” as he would probably have called it, allowing his warm Hampshire accent subtly to modify the first vowel and subsequent consonant). But he was also a stylish writer about both football and cricket and contributed a regular column on wine to The Guardian. Arlott was a quite well known poet too, at least in the first half of his career. His poetry is not particularly easy to track down nowadays; but examples can be found on the web, including a tribute to the batsman Jack Hobbs, which Arlott reportedly reckoned to be his best poem http://www.espncricinfo.com/cricketer/content/story/134086.html. I am pleased to observe that there will be a session devoted to John Arlott at the Winchester Poetry Festival http://www.winchesterpoetryfestival.org/ in September this year.
This short memoir deals with two of Arlott’s poems from the early 1950s. They made a significant impression on me when I came across them as a child and I have remembered them – or parts of them – ever since. The title of this piece acknowledges this lasting influence in the light of the fact that Arlott worked as a policeman for a dozen years before he took up journalism.
Both the poems appeared in the London Evening News; and the one I think I saw first was entitled ‘Death on the Road’. This appealed to me initially because it was about cars and I was somewhat surprised that an adult had taken the trouble to name some particular makes and models. But the confident rhymes and colloquial language impressed me too, as being somewhat more immediate than Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen…. The poem’s narrative begins on the Kingston by-pass and here’s how Arlott sets the scene
On the road to the south that the maps call A3
It’s a sin to drive slow and a job to ride free;
The traffic swills on like a storm down a drain
And the wide boys sit tight in the right hand side lane.
I have seen the poem again more recently so I cannot be completely sure that the above quotation comes out of a genuinely sixty-odd year old memory. But I honestly believe that it does. (As a matter of fact, the Kingston by-pass already held a certain mystique for me because there had been a number of cases of car windscreens spontaneously shattering along one particular stretch. There were conjectures about a sniper; but the incidents could well have been due to manufacturing defects or to stones kicking up from a poorly maintained road surface.)
The poem is about a young man driving home from work and trying to break a record set by a friend who’d done, so he swore, / a flat fifty minutes from City to door. As the title reveals, this attempt ends in tragedy in the form of a head-on collision with a heavy lorry.
He stood on the brake but – as clinical fact –
He was dead in the moment, before it could act.
The high wheels rolled on with no trace of a hitch
The police found his ribs and his sump in the ditch.
I’m afraid I enjoyed the shock and shiver at being told such blunt and graphic details.
‘Death on the Road’ was subsequently published as a slim pamphlet, perhaps a dozen pages long. I have seen it offered on Amazon for £540! I am, however, pleased to report that there was a copy in the South Bank Poetry Library the last time I checked. Rather interestingly, the poem in the pamphlet is not quite the same as the newspaper version. In the extract above, for instance, it is his heart and his hat that the police find in the ditch. I don’t think this is, in any sense, an improvement.
‘Death on the Road’ cannot, in all honesty, be described as great poetry; but the fact that it has stayed with me for so many years must be evidence of its sound craftsmanship and effective use of language. And my encounter with it may well have helped to form my continuing fondness for narrative poetry.
I have much less solid information about another Arlott poem which has hovered at the edges of my poetic consciousness for more than half a century. It too appeared in the Evening News; but I was in Portsmouth when I saw it. I was in fact at my first county cricket match watching Hampshire play Middlesex. I do not know what the poem’s title was or even if I was able to read it all the way through. I don’t even know if it was our newspaper or one I saw over someone else’s shoulder. In fact all I can recall is that it was about the death penalty and mentioned the execution shed / where the noose is hanging loose. This quite effective but not especially outstanding line has stuck in my memory as clearly as the details of the day’s cricket. (Hampshire scored just under three hundred, since you ask, to which a schoolboy named Ingelby-Mckenzie contributed a very rapid fifty. A clergyman – presumably on his summer holidays – appeared on the Hampshire scorecard as Rev J.R. Bridger.) A schoolboy’s taste for the grim and macabre would partly explain why the poem made an initial impression. But the persistence of that little interior rhyme surely demonstrates the latent power of poetry. It’s a power that operates in unexpected and haphazard ways; but it is power nevertheless.
This is a poem I would very much like to see again but have been unable to trace on the internet. But even as I reminisce wistfully about it, it occurs to me that the cricket match provides the key. Cricket statistics abound on the web so I should be able to find the relevant Hampshire-Middlesex game and hence deduce the date of the newspaper. While I might balk at searching through several years’ worth of Evening News back numbers in an archive, it should not be too onerous to consult a specific issue!
I may have set myself a new assignment.