Feb 7 2023
Poetry review – IT’S NOT PERSONAL: Michael Bartholomew-Biggs reviews a pleasingly wide-ranging collection by Nigel Pantling
The title phrase of Nigel Pantling’s collection It’s Not Personal occurs in a poem about someone losing their job as a consequence of a business takeover and being assured that it’s no reflection on their abilities or achievements (as if that was likely to be much consolation). I would however have assumed that quite a few poems in the collection are personal in the sense that they draw on his own life experiences in the City, the Civil Service and the Army.
One harsh aspect of City life has already been touched on in the “not personal” poem; and others lie below the catch-all term “risk”. “Operational Risk” itemises things that can go wrong, including ‘an invisible glitch in your website turns away customers’ and the situation when ‘your most trusted employee / … handed over confidential information / for a brown paper bag of fifty pound notes.’ When something bad like that happens and ‘the press are on to it’ then senior management may become so alarmed that
The fear from upstairs is staining the ceiling.
Obviously there have to be ‘consequences’ and after a month’s investigation a scapegoat is found and confronted by her boss and the head of HR
They do not invite comment or response. They tell her to hand over her security pass on her way out of the building. She looks away, up at the white ceiling.
Such narrative poems do tend to confirm any negative prejudices on the part of those who have never worked in finance or banking! And the glimpses of the Civil Service that Pantling shares are not much more positive. Idly Googling himself one day he is unexpectedly reminded of his days as a political speech-writer when he finds a transcript of words that he once put into a Prime Minister’s mouth. He is forced into the rueful reflection
ah, but there it is, I was young then, and ambitious, diligent, eager to please: all things that have led principled men to lie for their country.
Pantling also offers a few poems about the recruitment process for MI6 (which may or may not count as part of the Civil Service). There is a delightfully John Le Carré style dialogue over lunch in a Gentleman’s Club where conversation switches to talk of cricket whenever civilians seem to be within earshot
You have to understand my boy, he says, your status in a foreign embassy will always be low … [which] can be dispiriting but your pay was a handy opening bat at school and rations are properly taken care of and an off-spinner too I took seven for fifty-four and if you’re good at your job in a match against Stonyhurst there’ll be back in fifty-eight a knighthood for you at the end of it
Pantling has written of Army life in his previous collections and here he limits himself to a four poem sequence about the military academy at Sandhurst which offers revealing insights. A recruit so afraid of heights that he ‘can’t look over a cinema balcony’ has climbed ‘eighty feet of poles with no safety net’. And the point of the exercise (and the poem) is that
This matters. And all it has taken is personal abuse from a staff sergeant and not wanting to let the others down.
(It is interesting to compare this military approach to personnel management with the earlier “impersonal” sacking from a City firm.) The poem “Sandhurst Uniform” also deserves a mention not only for being a well-made sestina but also because the form, with its disciplined grouping and regrouping of the six end words, is particularly appropriate when the subject matter is parade ground drill.
I should point out now that the collection contains many poems that are not occupational or career-related but are “personal” in the sense of being about private and domestic life. Among the book’s opening poems are several which deal with romances and assignations in a milieu that suggests languid affluence (reminiscent of some old Lord Peter Wimsey detective dramas I have recently been watching). For instance, in “Bath” a couple who had a ‘long tub’ fitted in their bathroom ‘before the children, so you could both fit in’ engage in a cool and sophisticated discussion about an admitted infidelity and then ‘go downstairs to the garden/ where the children are playing in the sand pit’ where they ‘open a bottle of the good Chablis’. There is a similar relaxed and confident feel to the poem about the woman who ‘relished solving a crossword with her lovers’. But it is a much hastier assignation that is described in “Visiting Sloane Square” (with a hefty but effective use of alliteration)
Slithering down her stairs, his heels slam slat by slat by slat, slashing his slight chance of slinking silently away.
In contrast to these “adult” narratives, the subsequent group of childhood recollections contains more down-to-earth honesty and tenderness. “Moving School” captures the perplexity caused by an unspecified family upheaval
He doesn’t know why they came to this damp house with its weedy garden over-run by snapping dogs. Or why he had to leave his old school for this one, a bus ride away, a bus which never has a seat for him.
This poem has a surprising and mildly shocking ending but the sequence “Death in the Family” tackles issues that are more serious with longer lasting consequences: a father who is
fearful of returning too early or too late to the dull house and the wrung-out wife and still bringing no money for the headstone
and a mother who eventually ‘found herself locked away / in a hospital miles from home’. (This poem, incidentally, cleverly puts unexpected flesh on an abstract mathematical puzzle known as The Travelling Salesman Problem, which I shall probably never look at again in quite the same way.)
The sequence “Evensong” offers sympathetic portraits of staff and congregation in a small town church. There are neat observations: choristers ‘peel off alternately into their stalls / like incendiary shells from a Roman candle’; modernisers ‘wanting everyday language in the liturgy and skiffle in the nave’; the bass singers in the choir with ‘none of the showy unreliability of the altos and tenors’.
The mention of skiffle in the “Evensong” poems does rather suggest that the raw material for this sequence was drawn from the 1950s. It might be interesting to return to the church and see if any of the characters survive; and, if not, who they have been replaced by. Comparisons and contrasts are in fact themes that Pantling likes to explore. In “Differences” he wistfully imagines ‘some parallel world / where … the rainbow has eleven colours’ in which a lunch-time meeting with a woman friend ended harmlessly with both going their separate ways so that ‘he is still married and has forgotten her name’. “Delivery” on the other hand finds dark humour in the differing perceptions, by wife and husband, of the journey to hospital delivery room. From the male point of view ‘it was plain sailing on the day /…. / Had a bit of trouble finding a parking space, but no real problem.’ The expectant mother’s version is
He took us round the car park as if we were shopping at Tesco, ignoring perfectly usable spaces … I hit him flat-handed, hard across the ear.
It should be clear by now that It’s Not Personal is a very accessible collection that promises an enjoyable read – possibly even in a single sitting.