Author: Paul House

Poetry: T.L.P.




                                    What did we talk about before I was ill,

                                    Before the sanitised days of drips and tubes

                                    And the nights of sweat and terror took over?


                                                                                    (Thomas Pride, 1954-2017)




I wanted to write a song that could greet the dawn,

not the dreary misery we tend to dwell on,

you and I, and then you sent me Larkin.

I was surprised to find he was only 63

when that small unfocused blur unclouded. 

I would have thought him a lot older and yet

I suppose it was the bald head that confounded 

and the fact that he seemed to have done so much.

If this were more of a poem, it would speak of the day we met

at Goldsmiths’, both late and out of touch, 

you with very short hair, me with long wild curls,

both of us casually eyeing up the girls

and realising quickly there was only George and Jan.

It would speak of going with Jaana and me 

to a public bonfire night in Lewisham, 

Margot’s wheeze-and-wine parties, 

Andi-truck crashing into the tree 

and Rosie’s skunks and vegetable lasagne. 

Saying “Tunes!” twice a day to a confused doorman, 

on arrival with a stuffed-up nose and then

clear as a bell at the end of the day. 

It should have the two of us striding out up Lewisham Way 

towards Bolden Street for drinks in the afternoon, 

music and sudden poetry banishing all thoughts of essays. 

And just before a Christmas I’ve long since forgotten,

taking your dog up to Snelsmore Common, 

the dog the only one of us that was happy. 

Two years later, it was Watership Down

and instead of taking the dog, we took drugs. 

If it were more of a poem, it would speak of the three

of us hitching to Paris. On the outskirts of Calais,

at two in the morning, we woke up all the dogs 

in the town and they threatened to call the police. 

We somehow managed to stop seven lorries

at the same time and an Italian drove us to Paris

where all the artists paint the same picture. 

Back in London and we started to annoy Jaana 

with our overdrinking and boisterous behaviour 

until she began to dread your coming around. 

But still you did. In my almost-married state, 

I was jealous of your freedom, not realising 

that it was loneliness and more of a prison 

than the one I was shortly to leave behind.

Jaana went and then you found Tracy, 

who you always liked to call Theresa, 

and we had our Lawrentian moment outside her house 

which I was never invited into. With Tracy gone, 

(apart from no eyes to compare to the morning sun), 

we were left on our own to drink pint mugs of gin 

and tonic near the tennis courts in Manor Park 

before we were insulted by the Catford women

and played drunken football with the little children. 

Obsessive games of Breakout in the Lord Northbrook,

Mellors, Benson and the Lizard our closest friends. 

When not playing weird games upon the floor,

we had poetry and coffee long into the night,

reading Cohen and Dylan and Balthasar B

and sometimes our own poems, if we got them right.

We heard of men who spoke words beautifully

and tried desperately to be like them, dutifully 

stuttering and stammering on until something came.

Micheldever Road will always be significant for me,

a symbol of those closed off isolated suburban lives

that played themselves out behind brocade curtains,

ignorant of the advent of Punk and the solitary man

making his way home to the vicarage alone

with a small voice nagging at the back of his mind

naming all the things he’d already left behind.

Stopping, then, beneath a streetlamp in the rain

to watch a young girl at an upstairs window

getting ready for bed after a night on the town,

trying to catch the dream before it was gone.

If it were more of a poem, it would see us

traipsing back to Manor Lane after the pub,

gatecrashing parties and chucking peanuts and canapés

from one end of the crotch hungry room to the other.

We could have been Byron and Shelley out on a bender,

Only it was Lewisham, not Livorno, Greenwich and not Greece.

Then a day in Kensington with Brian Patten,

who was lonely once when he had the pox,

listening to Robert Frost’s two-pointed ladder  

crackling out of a battered cassette player,

before going to see the strange American

in his houseboat on the Thames, little Maia

getting out the hoover as soon as we arrived.

There should be something in this poem about us being arrested

by the watchman with the small dogs in Greenwich Park.

Breaking and entering the Queen’s property, he said.

This offence would remain on the records of Interpol

And give me serious grief later entering Portugal.

Mrs Maloney paid my fine, you just ignored it.

When the summons came, you threw it away,

you said you wouldn’t pay because you couldn’t afford it.

It was on a cold November day in 1976

that we went to Majorca to see Robert Graves.

When we got there, however, we found instead 

the woman who could have done without her legs 

and the sisters who we plied with Campari, 

the pretty one for you and the mad one for me, 

dancing to Barry Manilow singing Mandy. 

We attempted harmonica on the beach and

played crazy golf until the sunset filled the sky.

We did a runner from a bar on the promenade

and hired clapped out Vespas that kept breaking down.

Unaware as to how closely we would each 

both get to know them, the names made us laugh,

the Bimbo bread, Sombra, the suave negro fags. 

There is a picture of us walking at the edge of the sea,

looking young and slim, jeans rolled up to the knee,

overtired, perhaps, but overjoyed to look, like Prufrock,

for seagulls and mermaids as the waves drew back.

We stood once on Brownhill Road at midnight,

talking for over an hour as the rain poured down.

At that time, we still thought we could make it all right,

forget completely those saddest of all evenings

and find a happy way through to the end of the night.

There should be something about the class on Shakespeare

when Val Collins said that her flies were undone

and you said, “I thought it was a bit musty in here.” 

You opened the window and sat down again.

And there should be something too about the Art School dance

where we ended up having a drunken brawl

with six unworthy opponents, ruining our chance

of any brief romantic interlude with two plain girls.

1977 started with a gentle rain falling

on Newbury and you incessantly complaining

of insomnia. To return then to the bleakness of London

and to take the narrow tunnel under the Thames

and into the waste, ruins and vacant lots of dockland,

reading Pavese and Ungaretti, Quasimodo and Montale 

as we bent over the murky water of the river,

looking for something that was never going to be there.

Every night, we hung out with the weirdest poets

we could find, never going to bed before three

and loving it when it was four in the morning

so that we could sing along to our favourite song.

Milton was replaced by Mandelstam, Swift by Tsvetayeva.

Our own work progressed and was finally published

by Richard Myers Peabody junior in Gargoyle.

This did not bring us the adulation we’d wished for

and was basically ignored by the world at large.

Boredom had a large part to play in the decision

to hold, one wet week-end, the Nasty Drinks Competition.

the last drink being a rum, Pernod, gin, Babycham,

whisky, brandy, Campari, lemonade and lime. 

Your poems, then, were called things like “Parting”, 

“The Unquiet Night” and “Through Another’s Sorrow”,

and I was told by New Poetry that I got lost

in a thicket of words and should do some pruning.

On a cold January evening we planned to get drunk 

the next day before ten o’clock in the morning.

We read our poems in Winchester and Letchworth

where we were spat on by a hostile audience of punks.

We walked the streets and gave our eyes a haunted look,

wanting to disturb the passers-by, but we only succeeded

in looking ridiculous. And then suddenly Mrs Maloney

decided you were no longer welcome at Manor Lane,

so we were forced to meet for drinks at the Railway Hotel,

talking from closing time until one in the station tunnel,

feeling guilty but looking for someone else to blame,

and yet nothing ever came of the wild plans we made.

Nearly two years living in each other’s pockets,

hardly seeing or speaking to anyone else. I forget

now too often what a time we had. It was a time

of dreams that were real, that were sometimes sublime,

dreams that were shared plus the occasional nightmare.

And through all the grumpiness, all the misery and despair,

you could be relied upon to be there when you were needed.

Until suddenly you weren’t. And our plans for taking on

Madrid together went unheeded. A suicide throwing his pain

under a train at Elmstead Woods almost changed

my future, but I got to my interview in Regent’s Street

with just minutes to spare. Spain would get us back on our feet

although we would be kilometres apart. You in Sabadell,

and I amongst the rolling mountains and vineyards of Logroño.

In less than a week, I had found friendship with Nelly

and set out on what would become a rather tortuous affair,

although it had its moments, as most affairs do.

One night, I stepped out on to my balcony to listen 

to the cicadas filling the night with a lonely sound 

and I said, “What of dear old Tom? Why isn’t he here 

to listen to all this emptiness that wells up slowly

and in waves from such a brightly lit and empty square?

Where it would be so good to sit and talk and maybe

to drink some wine. Talk of the Field Commander,

maybe even tentatively hum a piece of a song.

Then, on 31st October, you sent me a letter.

Morna had become suddenly and famously Elektra,

stepping like a man out across the sand.

But you made the mistake of taking her to England,

where you were met at the airport by a different girl

who’d been waiting for you on the other side of the world.

New Year then found us in Newbury again

with Phil Dobson and the light-fingered Melvyn.

There was so much to say and no need to say it. 

England and our friends had not really moved on 

since we’d been away. The country had not improved.

It was unwelcoming, cold and had leaden skies

and we looked at it now with a foreigner’s eyes, 

as arrogant as ever and dismissively wise.  

We had the looks but we didn’t have a sensible brain

between us. Anyway, we were both soon back in Spain,

each of us pretending it was what we wanted to do.

My life soon reverted to singular boredom and you

made friends with Wilshaw and began the guitar. 

Whilst Nelly and Danièle could have done a lot better,

most of what happened was my own stupid fault,

always expecting to be given a second chance,

bending over backwards and doing somersaults,

instead of just calling it a day, putting it down to experience.

Then the postman brought me “Something Heavy In The Distance”,

and letters from Lissauer, The Find, Russell and once

even a letter from Henry Barian, All Of That Sad Loving

welling up again. He asked me to write a foreword

to his new book of poems and true to form, although absurd,

I couldn’t be bothered to find the time to get the words

into shape and, repeating behaviour, I had to let him down. 

Like a child that discovers, for the first time, it is bored,

I was scared by both the emptiness of life on my own

and the unknowing. Everything suffered, even the memories.

I thought of us singing Lamplight under the railway tracks

at Hither Green Station where I lived for so long 

and will never again, knowing that you can’t go back

making the idea of doing so all the more attractive. 

I began to think seriously about returning to London,

study less irksome than playing the romantic card again,

whilst knowing it to be just a different way of escape

and fast running out of ways and places to go, a new start,

hopefully not another false one. And yet there was a part

of me that wanted to stay, maybe even to move east

to join you in that ugly suburb between the mountains and the sea,

roll up with a grin and say, “I’ve given up girls and whisky

and being unhappy. I’m going to Mexico to be a mariachi,

get a big hat and a big guitar, strap a gun to my belt.

I’m going to be a bullfighter, someone who entertains as he kills.”

Empty thoughts which came to nought. I would go home

to more dull empty days and long nights on my own

in a shitty little flat in High Street North, E.12.

You suggested I go south and move in with Phil

and that Christmas, London was covered with real snow.

You came and drank pints of Black Death to keep warm 

and my flat was so cold that the toothpaste froze.

I told you of Miss Skinner and you nodded, knowing the form,

warned me against unnecessary involvement and said,

“Still, if you jump off a cliff, you’ve got to land somewhere.”

Despite your advice, it was not long before I found her bed

as warm a place as any at the time, and little I cared

that it wouldn’t last. I didn’t realise she was about to get married. 

And then I met Susie and, all of a sudden, started writing

happy poems. I soon realised that the purpose of fighting

for something is not inevitably defeat and I could actually win

this time. Susie gave me everything I’d ever wanted

and things were looking good for me.  For you, on the other hand,

there was Jackson Browne, John Hiatt and playing the guitar.

If this were more of a poem, it would have you driving the big Rover

along the steep winding coast roads of the Costa Brava,

heading for the rocky peaks and the monastery of Montserrat,

and then home, to sit and talk with people who are up so late.

I went back to Spain as you returned to England and apart 

from a couple of brief meetings this proved to be the start

of our living very separate lives. I remember a phone call

when I caught you eating a chorizo sandwich. I remember all

the letters because there were so few of them. And one day,

the love of my life met what, I imagined, was yours

and things went well until it became apparent that Ros

didn’t like me at all, in short, thought me a bit of cunt.

And so began a lazy hiatus of more than twenty years.

I must confess that I did think of you often as we confronted

the task of growing up and building families. You built a career.

I did my best not to conform, settle down or play the game,

I turned my back on expectation and Susie did the same.

But we managed and we were happy most of the time.

Later, you told me of drink and of stress and cocaine,

the inevitable ups and downs of life in the fast lane.

Although it was never planned, I ended up in Madrid

and before long it was my family that determined what I did.

We proudly watched our children grow into better people 

than we could ever hope to be. I’m sure we thought of each other,

but we never got back in touch, we just never took the trouble

to pick up the phone or pick up the pen, too much of a bother

with so many more rewarding things to do. Then with the new

millennium, a new start: the WW and the Racy Mole.

Lucky Food and Wine provided the Claymore and the two

of us put it away like bastards, like in the days of old.

I treasure all the hours I spent with you, old chum,

and I look forward to all the hours still to come.

The only problem with this cataloguing of events

is, as Uncle Wys said, the remembering present. 

This is what we talked about before you were ill

and, so long as you’re there, we always will.

Sample Chapters

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Poem for Anna •  Mandelstam and Mayakovsky •  The Lighted Window  •  Alone with the Years •  The Poet Tires •  Something there is •  La Madrugada •  Postcard of a Golden Retriever •  Shellfish •  Miguel Hernandez •  At the Edge of the Ebro •  Gone •  Playing Cards •  That's Where I Belong •  An Abstract Perfection •  Pearls in a Glass •  Poem for Susie •  Mornings in Malasaña •  Leo •  A Garbled Message •  Gnome •  Old Friends •  More About Penguins •  Ghosts •  Poem for Nelly •  Good Friday in Salamanca •  T.L.P. •  What It Is About •  The Blind Man And His Guide •  The Smell Of Winter •  For No Other Reason •  Poem for Linda