This is Not Your Final Form: Emma Press

Cover of This is Not Your Final Form For this post I am having a change of direction and featuring a poetry book as I have not done so for a quite a while (sadly remiss of me). The collection This is Not Your Final Form (edited by Richard O’Brien and Emma Wright) is comprised of entrants and winners from the Birmingham based 2017 Verve Festival Poetry Competition. This book isn’t a long term TBR item as it only took up residence on my bedside table a few months ago and I did start reading it straightaway. I was browsing on the Emma Press website and as a Brummagem lass now based in Dublin, this collection was too tempting to pass up, so dear reader, I bought a copy. The back-cover blurb says this is ‘a tough, unsentimental love letter to the Midlands metropolis, which finds beauty in concrete and unity in contradiction’. And there is certainly a lot of concrete in Birmingham to inspire conflicting emotions, especially as Birmingham never seems to achieve its ‘final form’. I suspect it never will.

Canals and stories

There are so many poems that I like in this anthology, that it is difficult to know what to feature in a short article such as this. I am simply going to pull out a few themes from the collection that particularly resonated with me, starting with that old saying about Birmingham having more canals than Venice. I think that one cropped up in three poems altogether. Here’s an extract from ‘Birmingham – some advice’ by Rob Walton which amused me, as it suggested that we should change the saying to better attract tourists to Birmingham:

Seems you have ‘more canals than Venice’,
but surely ‘more canals than roads’ would be more impressive.
And wetter. Which could lead to more souvenir towel sales.
I got soaked in Birmingham! How about you?

I like the sound of the idea, but would it work I wonder? Let’s have your tea towel designs on a postcard please! Kibriya Mehrban’s poem takes as its title ‘More Canals than Venice’ and links the man-made waterways of Birmingham with rivers, tears and the currents that brought her family to Birmingham from Kashmir:

We were washed into this world,
soaking it with our colour.
Some stood, splattered, scandalised,
while others called us sisters and brothers,
offered us cloud cover.

When my grandfather first saw a girl in a hijab
working at the local post office,
he cried this city a river.

Mehrban’s poem tells us her family’s story though different generations and experiences. How they found a home in Birmingham despite the hostility of some people. This collection serves to remind us that Birmingham has been the scene of many family stories, some sad, some happy, during its long history. Birmingham also played a crucial role in the story of the modern nation. Rishi Dastidar’s lines say it all:

The middle is where the future started –
our modern world was invented here.
Minds, steam, capital met in manner uncharted –
the middle is where the future started.

 

An unsolved mystery

Continuing with the theme of story, what place would be complete without at least one unsolved mystery? The one featured in this collection was somewhat macabre and has proved endlessly fascinating to later generations as this poem proves. ‘Who put Bella in the Wych Elm Tree?’ by Helen Rehman is about a 1940s murder that remains unsolved to this day. In 1943, four boys were poaching in Hagley Wood when they discovered a skeleton, later found to be that of a female, hidden within a tree trunk. To cut a long story short, there have been many theories and stories around the discovery. These were partly fuelled by the appearance of graffiti that gave a possible name to the dead woman. The poem title references one version of the provocative question, which appeared on locations around the Midlands after the remains were found.

As the last verse tells it, time has moved on, the remains can no longer be located and the mystery endures:

The skeleton’s mislaid, the experts can’t agree,
the boys are grown and gone and lost to history;
she haunts the city’s dreams and grows a mystery.
I wonder who put Bella in the wych elm tree.

Brummie-isms

I move onto what is possibly my favourite poem in the book as it references some of the Brummie expressions that I grew up with and still fondly remember. The strange thing about local quirks of language is that you accept them while young and it never occurs to you to ask where/why/how these expressions came about. Here’s a snippet from ‘Never in a rain of pig’s pudding’ by Jill Munro:

You can take the girl out of Brummagem,
let her leave behind old Winson Street.
dress her in some bostin Southern glad rags,
marry her to a yampy Cockney with some ackers

But don’t throw this babby out with the bathwater,
for so long as it’s a bit black over Bill’s mother’s
you’ll never take the Brummagem out of the girl –
even way down south, she’ll always be Our Kid.

I like the last line, it reminds me of my uncle calling my dad ‘Our Kid’ even though dad was the eldest brother. If anyone wants an explanation of some of the terms in the verses quoted, there is a handy guide on the Birmingham Live website, giving you fifty Brummie and Black Country words and phrases to chew over. Not all the phrases given necessarily originated in or are exclusive to Brum as language travels as people move around the country.

I’m going to finish with my own contribution to the topic of language with one of my Paragraph Planet pieces from 2016, with some of my Brummagem memories.

 

Hepserus: a 75 word piece from Paragraph Planet

I’ll just note that whereas Jill Munro’s poem has ‘faces as long as Livery Street’, I grew up with ‘arms as long as…’. Which just goes to show the adaptability of the local lingo.

That’s it for now and I hope it won’t be too long before I dig another poetry book out of the Landing Book Shelves!  

 

 

A Library Digression

Early Harborne Libary

An old print of Harborne Library

With all of the debate about the future of libraries going on after huge service cuts in Britain, (though Ed Vaizey says it’s not as bad as we think it is!) I have been casting my mind back to my own experiences of public libraries. First as a child and later, as a parent, I have always taken libraries for granted. I cannot remember a time when I did not have a library ticket for a library, often for more if you count academic libraries. As any reader of this blog knows, I regularly sneak library reads into my TBR Pile schedule. At present, I hold tickets for Dublin City and DLR County Council libraries, which gives me oodles of possibilities. I also often take advantage of the new (ish) online Libraries Ireland portal for reserving books at no extra cost. In short, I love libraries, whether in Britain or Ireland, and still use them a great deal. It’s a pity that Ed Vaizey has no real grasp of what libraries can and do mean to many people.

My library love affair began many years ago, growing up in Birmingham. My mum registered me at our local library when I was pre-school age; and in turn, our daughter had her own library ticket before she could even read, from Hereford library. I grew up with a library routine that saw us exchanging our books every Saturday morning. As teenager, I used to take my younger sisters for the regular Saturday library trip, borrowing endless (or so it seemed to me) Topsy and Tim adventures every week. Amongst my own reading then was Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle and Georgette Heyer. I was a big fan of RJ Unstead’s history books and Henry Treece’s adventures of ancient Britain. And let’s not forget my teenage swashbuckling hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel rescuing the innocent (and of course les aristos were always simply misunderstood) from Mademoiselle Guillotine. I do occasionally ponder on how many books I would never have read, had I not had ready access to a library. We always had books for Christmas and birthdays, but with four children, there was always going to be a limit on book buying. As I grew older, I saved up pocket money to buy paperbacks, but they were more than likely books by authors whom I had first discovered in the library.

Harborne Libary

Harborne Library

The earliest library I remember was an old building, a former Masonic Hall, in Harborne High Street. The library steps were where I remember waiting to see Father Christmas drive past in his sleigh one chilly December evening (no November appearances in those days). The children’s section was a treasure trove of books, up an imposing flight of stairs with a curving banister. Funnily enough, it looked much larger when I was a child. Also upstairs was the Reading Room, a mysterious chamber only accessible to grownups. Alas, I discovered on a recent visit that it no longer exists so I never managed to penetrate its solemn interior. The adult section was downstairs, all dark wood shelving and creaking floors. At that time, library cards were still just the brown cardboard variety. I think we had four cards each (I seem to recall that children’s cards were blue) so that was all the books you could borrow. When you took out a book, the librarian took the coloured slip from a pocket inside the front cover and tucked it inside one of your library tickets, which was then filed until your return visit. The plastic bar-coded cards simply don’t have the same magic about them.

Quinton Library

Quinton Library

When we moved house to a different suburb of Birmingham, we also moved to a new library. Quinton library was awaiting re-development. In consequence, we spent time choosing books in a dingy temporary building while all the exciting work went on next door. What finally emerged from the rubble was a shiny new library and community centre with more glass than walls and big comfortable sofas. In my memory, the overriding impression is that of a large space filled with books and bright orange furniture, but I may be mistaken about the colour. In sum, I remember it as very 70s in its bright and breezy welcoming style. All apart from the head librarian, who was a very scary woman and not at all welcoming in manner (well, not to children anyway). The mystery was that she didn’t look as though she ought to be terrifying, not being an archetypical ancient custodian of the books, but a comparatively young woman. She obviously didn’t really want to be lending the books, or at least not to children!

Despite the best efforts of the intimidating head librarian, I loved going to the library and devoured my regular quota of books. For quite a few years, I cherished a dream of becoming a librarian after leaving school. When I was younger, I even created my own library cards and made tickets to stick in my own books. In the fifth form, I went along to a careers advice talk and was sure of my vocation to be a librarian. At some point however, I abandoned that dream and settled for being a lifelong library user instead.

I suppose I should get back to the TBR Pile now…

Picture Credits: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/ – with thanks