Martin Noutch finds himself well-placed to appreciate a poetic exploration of a Nottingham past by Derrick Buttress

buttressWelcome to the Bike Factory
Derrick Buttress
Shoestring Press
ISBN: 978 1 910323 00 7
£9

For me, a Midlander in love with the very ordinary English countryside Derrick Buttress writes about, the instructions of ‘How to Steal Apples’ awake my own memories of a childhood exploring the overlooked margins of Nottingham.  The directness of his imperative verbs, powering the majority of his sentences, gives the whole word-picture a bright vividness. The poet instructs us – maybe with a tone of invitation – to re-enact in our minds his boyhood’s wanderings.

Ignore the stone-pocked Private signs
As you walk through farms and fields.
Skirt the acres of ripening wheat,
crawl through gaps in hawthorn and wire,
a trespasser, scratched and grazed.

Buttress’ address is either to his reader or his boyish self of the past – and this is the first of the successes of this collection of short, pastoral poems: its nostalgia.  There is a great value in pitching a poem so that it provides both the comfort of memory to its writer and the creation of a distant world for its reader, and there is no need to complicate this to do it successfully.  Some of my favourite poems in this collection are the simplest retellings of Buttress’ memories or imagined pasts, not over-sentimentalised with cliche, but fresh and ‘frail’, like the wisp of smoke that begins the book in ‘First Fire’.

The book is peopled with youth and the central group of poems combines to create a bestiary of boys. One after another we find tender portraits of the exploring, girl-baiting boys, the Shakespeare-mangling tomfool boys, the ‘Running Boy’, the boy that became a man at sea, the boy whose dad was dead, the ‘Bookworm’, the country boy caged in school, the scrumping boys, the time-wasting boys, the children who moved from city to country.  Then comes a group of poems largely about work – less tenderly remembered, but with the same lexicon of simplicity – of reality.  I can certainly see the value of these memories as a record, for Nottingham is no longer the centre of manufacturing it was, and a poem like ‘Welcome to the Bike Factory’ is itself another impression of ‘the history of the Company’ that the young person joining the shop needs to know.

The poet has clearly taken care over the construction of the collection itself, grouping and ordering his poems in a more-or-less chronological fashion, and the position given to ‘Welcome to the Bike Factory’ in the very centre of the little book, as well as the honour of lending its title and imagery to the cover, clearly indicates its importance to the poet.  This moment is a turning point, recorded, when the pastoral freedom of all those boyish memories is subjected to the adult world of repetitive work. There is no romanticism in the factory – the voice lending advice and instruction sounds more like an NCO than an artisan.  Here, the lists within the poem are like an often-repeated process of induction, another production line in imitation of the bike-building itself:

followed by advice

on how not to get crushed, cut or torn,
what to do if you find a finger missing,
(what to do with the missing finger)
how to deal with shock, electrocution,
broken foot bones and skin disease

The mode of the verbs here perfectly expresses the attitude of the supervisor.  A young worker may get himself crushed – his own action – his own negligence…  He may make that sudden discovery that his finger has been chopped off – but there is no mention of sympathy!  This is not a place for games.  ‘Welcome to the Bike Factory’ indeed!

The more rooted in place Buttress’ poems are, the more successful.  The vague setting of ‘On Our Street’ provides, I think, less ground for compelling description.  Is the quick choice of names – Baz, Kira, Kevin – and the imagery of a mam marooned / far off on a fag and tablet island more than cartoon chav-sketching?  If it is, then it is thanks to the desperate hyperbole of the last line expressing Baz’s need: He would die for one day that was different.  Here is the poet’s light, dry humour, together with his ear for the phrase on real people’s lips – but crucially, a return to that empathy that best characterises his other portraits.

This fellow-feeling is there beneath the story of the boy who reacted to being sent away by trespassing, and found his own education when he learned to read the fields and woods / which told a story he could understand.  It is there with the best of boyish pity when we let this half-orphan walk with us in ‘Eric’ and when the scent of oranges recalls a long-dead tailor, when the smart girls of our town head to work and in the choice of subject in three poems about the workers of the past – ‘Radford Pit’, ‘A Stockinger’s Life, 1841’ and ‘Working Girls’.

But there is one more facet that deserves recognition.  The relationship of Buttress’ characters to art – to words particularly – speaks for itself of another power of poetry: its ability to show the value of the humble and overlooked.  In ‘The Bard for Boys’, the performance of a crippled Midsummer Night’s Dream shows Buttress identifying with Shakespeare’s Quince – but even at this stage, undervaluing himself.  His steps are more sure-footed by far, his verse has a real measure.  There is a beautiful bathos in Mam’s reaction – first asking what it was all about, then summing it up It was long, Mam says.  Very long.  But this is an exact echo of my Nottingham-born-and-bred granny’s thoughts on our secondary school performance of Hamlet.  The line she liked from the final scene in that was The sight is dismal!  Such things are very fitting for poetry.  The opportunity to weigh a memory and value it – to ask yourself exactly how much self-mockery and how much fondness there is in it – is why we write poems!  When we realise that, on second thought, an experience was better than it seeemed, more valuable than we first thought, like the limp that gives the poet the affinity to Lord Byron in ‘After the Accident’, then we should celebrate the rediscovery with verse.

I have enjoyed ‘Welcome to the Bike Factory’ a lot.  These poems exalt the humble and overlooked and express a really positive nostalgia that prompts me to reflect on the subject of poetry in general.  If such things interest you, then you will certainly find this collection repays your interest.