Poetry Review – SAVING FRUIT – Rennie Halstead looks at a lost way of life in rural Lincolnshire in Lynda Plater’s latest pamphlet.
Lynda Plater’s second pamphlet draws its inspiration from family history on the coast of Lincolnshire, from Great-Grandad George, the cockler and market gardener (1858-1942) through Grandad Sid, soldier and market gardener (1895-1951) to Mam (1923-1971). This strongly visual pamphlet shows the struggles of earlier generations trying to make a living in an often hostile environment, where hard physical labour was the norm.
“Great-grandad at the cockle bed, 1910” creates a picture of the experience of the cockle industry over a century ago. George rakes the cockles by hand:
rattling shells as waves do at a sand shelf. Their ebb and flow is a roll, a gathering.
He relies on his horse and cart to help with the work:
His horse, sleep filled, sandfly tired, utters snorts. Cart loaded, sacks draining their brine on wood.
On the journey home:
a horse which can find its own way round butt runs and soft sand.
There is the business of unloading and preparing the cockles:
At the yard, enamel buckets rattle as man and wife rinse shells: […] They are both singing.
This beautiful, vivid snapshot of a long-past way of working has the authenticity of a Sutcliffe photograph. The writing takes the reader into a world of long windswept beaches, harsh easterly winds and hard physical labour.
Great-Grandad reappears in “End of a Living, 1931”. The poem marks the end of an era for the family. We learn:
He will no longer be heard calling from Eastgate as women wait with cups for a gill of cockles raked from Donna Nook.
The horse, which drew the cart all these years:
has dropped amid the clatter of buckets on to straw, […] heart stalled. One eye up.
Great-Grandad kneels by his dying horse:
his hands amid the greasy mane. The last suck of air, then a hessian sack drawn over that one dull eye.
We are not just witnessing the death of the horse here. The loss devastates Great-Grandad George too:
Great-Grandma […] leads her man home through the yard where numb stars wash about his dark.
It would be easy for this poem to fall into sentimentality, but the precision of focus and sharpness of the writing avoids the danger and once again we have the crystal clarity of a photograph recording not just a death, but the passing of a way of life.
The next generation features Grandad Sid, soldier and market gardener. We first meet Sid on service in Palestine in 1918, remembering home life, and a year later in “Sid’s first days of leaving Palestine, 1919”. After a choppy journey, Sid returns home, a changed man, feeling a stranger in his family’s world. His mother threw wet arms round him:
Dad said Now then lad and lit his pipe.
The experience, the inability to talk about his wartime experiences overwhelms Sid:
[…] Sid’s words wouldn’t come: not in the yard or stable where the horses slept, not in the winter lane nor at the shore
The memory is impossible to forget:
Palestine would not submerge but remained tiding in him.
“Laboured hands 1951” revisits Sid forty years later, and looks at the effect of long hours worked in frozen fields:
[…] he cuts greens on frosted field until his fingers weep, stain the long-bladed knife, and take away the feel of sacks of greens
This is no romantic way of life. Sid’s hands are paying for a lifetime of manual field labour:
[…] he can no longer hold cutlery; has to palm the cup.
His wife washes the cuts, binds and poultices the fingers with comfrey and dock leaves, but this is temporary respite:
In sleep his hands are wound in tight, […] With dawn he unwinds the remedy of cloth, peels off the comfrey compress. Fields are white with hoar frost.
The last two poems look at the wildlife of Lincolnshire. In “Rooks in winter”, Plater creates a strong image of the busy blackness of rooks, filling the air:
They have spilled their inkwell with wide wing to dribble black down winter trees, into untidy sticks of last spring’s nests. They make an etch of marsh in December with their span on papered sky
“Gather”, the last poem, describes the countryside after ploughing and has a timeless quality. “Now fields are ploughed / in lines of brown corduroy”. The hedges are bare except for “a twine / of sloes like tiny buttons / on the boughs”. The characters in the poem have come together to see the starlings gather in an autumn murmuration. They
come in and ravel up: ten thousand wings frayed in flight give breath to sky, fill air with chattering bills in a vocabulary of mystery.
and all too quickly:
they fold into the cloth of dusk, its soil and reed, it’s hedgerow.
Saving Fruit creates a vivid and memorable picture of life in rural Lincolnshire in the first half of the twentieth century. Plater captures the wildlife, the landscape and the lives of the people living and working in it with a pictorial, almost photographic realism. She has the ability to transport the reader back into the past through her spare imagery and simple language.