Felix Cassiel on

 

R.M. Francis

Subsidence

Smokestack, 2020

67 pages

 

 

 

Black be day

Red be night

Of the diverse criteria by which we measure the health of a culture, one frequently overlooked is the term’s definition. If we take culture to be a living thing - which we must, if we are to take the matter seriously - we assign to it not only the necessity of subjection to certain laws, but also the dignity of accident; no living thing can be known entire, and in our observation of phenomena we do well to confess that our object originates and continues at the behest of laws too subtle for our laboratory conditions; and for that vast and moving assemblage of phenomena we call culture, we would scarcely allow ourselves the pretence of a microscope.

 

Abashed individuals we may be; yet on the societal level, our behaviour is quite different: here, we wield our microscopes, like John Henry his mallet; we have our Ministry, and our Minister; we have our funding committees, government incentives, and stimulus packages; we have our consultations with ambassadors of arts; all with the end of promoting ‘culture’. Part of the problem, it seems, lies in the term’s accepted meaning. T. S. Eliot’s essay, Notes Toward A Definition of Culture, illustrates the difficulties involved.

 

A new civilisation is always being made: the state of affairs that we enjoy today illustrates what happens to the aspirations of each age for a better one. The most important question that we can ask, is whether there is any permanent standard, by which we may compare our civilisation with another, and by which we can take some guess at the improvement or decline of our own. We have to admit, in comparing one civilisation with another, and in comparing the different states of our own, that no one society and no one age of it realises all the values of civilisation. Not all of these values may be compatible with each other: what is at least as certain is that in realising some we lose the appreciation of others. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between higher and lower cultures; we can distinguish between advance and retrogression. We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of of this decline are visible in every department of human activity. I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it is possible to say that it will have no culture. Then culture will have to grow again from the soil; and when I say it must grow again from the soil, I do not mean that it will be brought into existence by any activity of political demagogues.

 

Though the idea of culture has since undergone further modification, we see that its progress has not deviated substantially from the course projected by Eliot.

 

Another measure of the health of a culture is the variation of dialects therein; as a subculture gains from its interplay with other subcultures, while retaining those qualities by which it is distinguished, so a dialect may be strengthened in commerce with other dialects, and the wider culture to which they belong gain correspondingly. The balance is a fine one: there must be fellowship enough to allow for just exchange, but animosity sufficient to keep them distinct. Too much of the former will occasion a blending of the two, or subjugation of one to the other; too much of the latter will result in separation, and a mutual buttressing of cant.

 

With these concerns in mind, R.M. Francis has produced Subsidence, a little artefact containing poems written predominantly in the dialect of the Black Country.

 

‘E knows ‘ow to kip a furnace burnin’

Through days an’ nights a sun an’ snow.

Alruna gid ‘im the runes for churnin’,

‘E knows ‘ow to kip a furnace burnin’.

 

Gram-sword deft kept knights returnin’

‘E toils dirt-ore to whetted glow.

‘E knows ‘ow to kip a furnace burnin’

Through days an’ nights a sun an’ snow.

 

(Wieland I)

 

Immediately we are put in mind of the border ballads; and as a ballad the piece has much to recommend it. The diction is vigorous, even warlike: each word at times seems to clash with its neighbour, yet the big, muscular, beating heart that drives the rhythm carries the voice before it is caught in a pitched battle. That the opening poem is designed to be sung is appropriate; we are, we feel, in familiar territory, and by the elasticity of the music, Francis has made allowances for our untrained ear.

 

We ay from brumajum

Weem in the border less

Pits - black be day

Red be night. Where baby

Rhymes with Rabbie - that old

Bard who kept the burn

In his tongue.

That burn connects, it burns

Like our old forges burned -

Burning trade and toil and song

And burning a brand

That yow know and yow know-

Burns like Saxon shamans

Who’s embers were stamped

And pissed on by ministers

Of education immersed in

Double spayke -

 

(Burning Tongues)

 

If we have taken culture to be a living thing, we take also its constituent elements to be organic; the parts behave as organic things behave, and the object of their behaviour is survival; as such, we see how in a culture unfriendly to a particular art, the art will over time become more isolated, and its interplay with other arts will diminish, and be eliminated altogether; the art will deteriorate in the agony of its isolation, yet by its evasive action it will have secured its continuance for a short while longer, though in a woefully degraded form. In the same way, a dialect will tend to retreat from a larger, unfriendly power, one that wishes to subsume the dialect into its own system, and take up its station in remoter areas. Hence, we see the remnants of Gaelic in the mountains of Wales, and in the West Highlands of Scotland; we see Doric hiding in the uppermost terrain of the southern Peloponnesian peninsula. Any spirited effort of preservation is attended by, and even dependent on, a certain species of hostility; those among the preservers consider their neighbours effeminate, debauched, and infected with careerism; in this light, we observe that the commerce between the lowlanders of Scotland and the northerners of England has occasioned disapprobation of the former by the Highlanders.

 

The Black Country, however, enjoys no such fortune of geography; there is little in the way of high ground to which the dialect may retreat; as such, any resistance to outside influence is made by mettle alone. Francis, in this book, endeavours to produce a sense of besiegement; and though its situation may be infelicitous, the Black Country wants not for frontier spirit.

 

During the day and during the night

Fires on all sides light

The landscape in fiery glows -

Constant twilight reigns.

 

Broken by hills

Of cinders

The echoing green,

Honeycombed

In mining galleries -

Almost unknown…

Iss plastic an’ electric light

That measures us now, ay it?

 

Forges pour plagues,

Cut-minerals mek

Shot and cannon

For Colonel Dud,

To sink Charles’ foes -

Thatcher fucked

The redbricked and hardskinned,

Iss PPI an’ empty pubs

In the sink ‘oles now, ay it?

 

(The Cradle)

 

It is not long before the reader develops a sense of otherness; we are, to the poet and the people he represents, outsiders; and we conduct ourselves as outsiders are expected to conduct themselves, with a curiosity bordering on voyeurism, made possible only by an acute sense of separation. By the speech of a self-contained community we may be delighted, instructed or repulsed; in either case, we seek to know how far the speech is an accurate representation of the attitudes and morality of the people speaking it.

 

We do not doubt that it is a common assumption that Thatcher single-handedly brought ruin upon England’s mining industry, but we would be surprised to overhear such terms as ‘redbricked’ and ‘hardskinned’ so used in ordinary conversation.

 

Our efforts are complicated by the method of conveyance; for in coming to grips with verse in dialect, we find it difficult to ascertain what is innate, and what extraneous; how much of what we read would we hear in a genuine encounter, and how much has been superadded. This difficulty is evaded in works of determinate form and metre: we accept, in a ballad, the artifice of song, and concern ourselves but little with its claim to realism. We take as a given that the representation is accurate within the limits of the form, and we harbour no illusion that the superimposition is regulated by the diction; we know the reverse is true.

 

‘E’d gid yo’ ‘alf a anythin’

‘E ‘ad an’ Ed could spare,

Thass why the swan-wench fell fer ‘im

‘E’d gid yo’ ‘alf a anythin’.

 

‘E coked a feather into a ring

Daiked with a Tetnall pear,

Thass why the swan-wench fell fer ‘im

‘E’d gid yo’ ‘alf a anythin’.

 

(Wieland III)

 

By the conversational pieces the water is muddied; through the use of dialect, the poet provides for himself a well of colour, with which he may add tinctures to his determinate ideas; frequently, in Subsidence, the colour supersedes the idea.

 

Eileen said -

Down in Worcester, them posh down theya,

Sound liyke farmers

And the wenches wear

Coats med a’ the sem stuff

As nan’s threepiece.

The barrista couldn’t understand

How ‘er asked for tay fer two -

‘Er took me as saft, ‘er did.

 

Eileen doh need ‘em to know

How ‘er yeds med

Like Royal Brierley.

 

(Eileen Says)

 

Like the efforts to preserve culture, an attempt to preserve a dialect demands of us resources not at our disposal; in our resistance to the onslaught, we may preserve many things, and dialect might be one of them; yet the preservation of dialect for dialect’s sake is a task essentially Sisyphean.

 

Nevertheless, as our acquaintanceship with the folk of the Black Country develops, we sense increasingly that this is the line pursued.

 

When young McKain’s son

‘Ad ‘is fust bab

Everyone stuck a quid

In ‘is collection.

Bob knew ‘im as a nippa,

Only tipped ‘is glass.

 

Soul as grey as ‘is ‘air,

There’s a Mild behind the bar

For tendin’

Leanne’s baskets

When ‘er was down in Burnham.

An’ we all gerr’im one in

‘Cause ‘e onnny ‘as two

Before gooin’ ‘ome

To tend to mom.

 

We all come and goo ‘ere,

Slipping in and out

In our suppin’.

 

(Bob the Fish)

 

History, for Francis, weighs heavily upon the conscience; yet history in these poems serves all too infrequently to enlarge the ideas or contextualise the sentiments, but is used primarily as a measure for decline. History in Subsidence is short, and begins only as the rot sets in.

 

The middle son boards

With Mother, she could tell a tale -

The only child of a factory wench

And ex-guardsman,

With council estate maisonette,

The stench of salted meats

And carbolic soap. Father,

Eldest of three in Post-War Semi,

Where tobacco, wine and classical

Music steep the scene.

Watched his Mum die at seventeen,

Never says a word about it.

 

(Borderlands)

 

It was remarked by the poet Nicolas Boileau-Despreaux that ‘a mean or common thought expressed in pompous diction generally pleases more than a new or noble sentiment delivered in low and vulgar language’; and this is true up to a point. Over vulgar language, pompous diction has two clear advantages: one, by virtue of its construction, it will please before its contents are discovered; two, being quick to please, it will boast more auditors than will the low, which tends to repel before its merit can be discerned.

 

Yet what is termed vulgar may differ from man to man, and certainly from class to class; over the course of succeeding generations, too, a phrase may undergo such extreme modifications as to conduce to solemnity in one age, and to cackles of mirth in another.

 

One of the issues raised by Francis is the interrelation of speech to conduct; how accurately is conduct, which has for foundation and pillars a particular morality, mirrored in speech; how far does the health of one depend on that of the other?

 

Now, my marketing company work from a barn, new media bred

From noveaux riche neighbourhoods, riddled with stainless steel

And glass, faux plants and tokens of trade, my bluechipped barn

Farms consultants for consultants and cuntsaltonts and…

 

(Pass Over)

 

Francis depicts his characters in various states of degradation; he tells us what they are to him, but gives little indication of what he thinks they could be; there are characters within, looking out, and characters without, moving in (as in the above excerpt from 'Pass Over'): neither think much of language, nor of their own humanity; and the introduction of the latter to the dwelling of the former will only catalyse the deterioration of both.

 

Nevertheless, in so doing, the poet also impresses us with a sense of urgency: hitherto, as outsiders, we have carried a sensation endued with the pathetic, but rarely have we felt engaged with the afflictions of those in Francis’s care; yet, bombarded as we are by the lamentations of those on the interior, the wailing of the besieged, in voices fragmented and commonplace, a sense of impending loss gains upon us: we prophesy elimination, and the prophesy is a sensible one. We have been privy to the process, and have taken it in complacently; soon, we will deal with the denouement; we will tell ourselves that accidents happen, and by accidents are communities removed; we will be less eager to remind ourselves that the operation was observable to the naked, untrained eye, outside of laboratory conditions; and we will have only artefacts such as this to call to our minds the fact that once upon a time, there was life here.

 

Felix Cassiel © 2021

Subsidence Subsidence Subsidence