Thomas Ovans finds it easy to enter into the spirit of Malcolm Carson’s short poetic memoir of his youthful travels in Europe


Cleethorpes Comes To Paris
Malcolm Carson
Shoestring Press
ISBN 978 1 907356 60 5
12 pp  £5


This very slim volume contains a sequence of poems which recall the author’s first trip abroad, hitch-hiking in Europe.  As the title implies, most of the poems are set in Paris, but there are indications that the whole trip extended as far south as Spain. The poems are evocative enough to bring back clear memories of a similar excursion of my own, many years ago (although I was unaware until now that thumbing a ride is known as autostop in French).  I have to acknowledge however that Carson’s poems indicate that his time in Paris was spent rather more adventurously than mine!

It is only in the first two poems that Carson concerns himself with actual travelling. ‘Autostop’ catches very well the awkward mix of gratitude and apprehensiveness which colours the opening minutes of a lift in a stranger’s car.  We’d wonder who we’d get / as no doubt did they… we’d start a conversation / as though to pay them back… It was as if we’d entered / their favourite sitting room.

Thereafter all the poems are about experiences in Paris where, after a first night of camping in the Bois de Boulogne,

we wiped the slug trails off our bags

descended into the Métro of our hopes

Carson appears also to be eager to wipe away provincial Englishness along with the slug trails and to enter into an international fellowship based around Sartre, poetry, jazz.  Fellow-travellers, however, seem to come and go.  While most of the poems record things that ‘we’ did and saw, others are narrated in the first person singular.  An early companion called Al seems to abandon the trip quite early and by page 5 he is at the Gare du Nord, boarding the train for Cleethorpes (not a direct connection, surely?).  Subsequent references to ‘we’ presumably include the new friends made en route, such as Karl-Heinz from Cologne (to whom, perhaps, the name Cleethorpes suggested somewhere rather exotic).

The poems record and recreate small vivid moments: a brief encounter with the musician Memphis Slim as he shunted his restless Jag / in that kennel of a street; and time spent in the bookshop Shakespeare et Cie in breathing distance / of Hemingway, Joyce, Sylvia Beach,/ Beckett.  Most alarmingly, Carson awakes one morning from rough-sleeping on a building site to find swastika flags hanging from monuments and marching soldiers stamping time aside.  Fortunately this turns out to be neither a dream nor a time-slip but simply a location shot for a film. Then, in the Père-Lachaise cemetery, Carson sees the Holocaust memorial and is moved to reflect that nightmare experiences did indeed become a reality for some who did not have our generation’s luck.  He also observes, among the carved memorials and epitaphs, a wall engraved by bullets / where the last Communards / were slaughtered; and this unintended memorial seems in its way to be more powerful than all the expensively crafted ones.

With its carefully-crafted and well-observed poems, this little book is rather like a snapshot album, enjoyable to browse more than once in expectation of picking up fresh details that were previously missed.  It might also be particularly entertaining if the author were on hand to provide a commentary.