Stepping Back: Resubmission for the Ordinary Level Examination in Psychogeography is a collection of poems written over more than a quarter of a century, which seeks to explore how poetry can give expression to the deeper truths about the connexions between poet and place. The author left the coastal town where he had spent his formative years at the age of eighteen, but has since returned for frequent short visits and longer periods; the poems reflect his relationship with his hometown over the decades in which he ‘grew away from it’. They investigate and interrogate issues of memory, resonance and association, and this paper explores the creative tension between the poet’s intentions in the writing of individual poems and the cumulative effect of a collection constituting an informal ‘resubmission for the ordinary level examination in psychogeography’.
Keywords: Psychogeography – Site – Home – Coast – Return
There is a town on the south coast of England from which, on a clear day, France is clearly visible twenty-two miles away across the Channel. In some respects it is an entirely unremarkable place, typical of the seaside towns in genteel decline that litter the English coastline. Originally a fishing village and trading port, it prospered in the Middle Ages and by the early years of the last century was well established as a fashionable and desirable seaside resort. The Town proved popular with a host of major writers: Charles Dickens, who called it ‘Pavilionstone’ (Harris 2016: 15) and H G Wells, who set much of his 1905 novel Kipps here, both spent extended periods in the town. Joseph Conrad, Henry James and George Bernard Shaw all visited. In the First World War it was from here that soldiers set sail to fight on the killing fields of France and Flanders. Later in the century, hordes of British holidaymakers and daytrippers would take advantage of cross-Channel ferries to make the same journey.
In the 1960s charter flights and the package holidays they made possible brought an abrupt end to the Town’s days as a fashionable resort, and the decline in tourism led inexorably to the closure of shops, hotels and other businesses. By the 1970s the Town was a forlorn shadow of its former self. Yet it remained the site of the first recorded beauty contest in Britain (in 1907) (Rooney et al 1990: 116); the place where Gandhi came ashore to attend the Round Table Conference in London in 1931 (Jack 1994: 397); the town William Joyce (aka Lord Haw-Haw) claimed had been destroyed by German bombs in 1939 (Summers & Robbins 2015); and where, improbably, Samuel Beckett married Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil in 1961 (Knowlson 1996: 481). Small wonder, then, that more recently Andrea Schlieker should see the town as ‘a gateway, a place of transit and transition’ (Schlieker 2011). Small wonder, too, perhaps that the Town should now have become the site of a highly successful Triennial exhibition, which has attracted artists of the calibre of Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Yoko Ono, Cornelia Parker and Mark Wallinger.
It was here that the poet – for the purposes of this paper the author of the poems discussed, the ‘curator’ of the collective Resubmission and, more tentatively, the author of the paper – was born in 1958. Both his parents had long established connections with the Town, his father having grown up less than a mile from the house where he himself would spend his formative years. In a very real sense, the Town was his world. It was an insular place in the 1960s, with a largely homogeneous population that included a large number of residents who were locally born and bred. The rhythms of the year were punctuated by events like the International Folklore Festival, the summer carnival and County Cricket Week. The Town boasted an art school, a repertory theatre and cinemas. Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones played there. But the signs of decline were already palpable, and became increasingly so into the 1970s.
The poet left the town of his birth for undergraduate studies at a university in the Midlands when he was eighteen, and never properly returned. Yet the place would continue to exert a strange, seemingly inexplicable fascination. He would return regularly, if not frequently, for short visits and longer periods, visiting family, sleeping in the bedroom where he ‘dreamed/the dreams of adolescence/and learned what nightmare means’ (Page 2016: 9) and walking again the well-trodden paths of his youth.
Years later, when the poet conceived the project to explore in verse his relationship with his hometown as it had unfolded over time, to create a submission for an imagined ‘ordinary level examination in psychogeography’, he came to realise that he had been engaged in this undertaking for more than a quarter of a century; that in a very real sense, the Town, its history, its geography, its status as backdrop to all the experiences of his childhood and adolescence and its critical role in shaping his identity, had been the subject to which, more than any other, he had been drawn in seeking to hone his poetic craft and find his poetic voice. The poems were already written and, in most cases, published. The project now became to seek to create an organic whole from a body of work that had been produced with no such intention, to explore the notion of return as an iterative process and to consider the changing and unchanging nature of place and his responses to it. It is against these aspirations, then, that Stepping Back: Resubmission for the Ordinary Level Examination in Psychogeography must ultimately be evaluated.
Identity is perhaps the theme that more than any other gives the collection its coherence. This is signalled by the poem ‘Mistaken Identity’, which opens it, with the lines:
One bright spring morning
I woke to find
I’d forgotten who I was,
so I packed a bag
and took the slow train
to the coast. (Page 2016: 5)
In this poem the Town emerges as a place of sanctuary and security at a time of confusion, a place with the potential to remind the poet who he was, to cut through the layers of experience that have brought him to a different kind of place, a place of uncertainty, where identity is no longer stable. In his childhood home he discovers clues to hidden, buried selves:
Postcards from Italy
to a very young man
were signed illegibly,
and a library card,
a briar pipe, an Ingersoll watch
and a CND badge gave little away.
His quest, finally, fails:
I gazed from the window
at a strange familiar landscape.
The Proustian nature of the enterprise is explicitly referenced in the second poem in the collection, ‘Combray Revisited’, which is prefaced by the opening sentence of Proust’s A La Recherche du temps Perdu: ‘Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure’ (Proust and Tadié 1989:3). Here the experience of eating ‘a digestive biscuit/dipped in well-drawn PG Tips’ provokes a Proustian moment of recall, summoning up his own ‘Combray’. This involuntary memory is of his own grandmother, who is ‘already/ impossibly old’ (Page 2016: 6), and the poet’s fear of finding her dead beside the fire in her back room as some other seven-year old had come upon his grandmother. Philip Larkin’s line from ‘Dockery and Son’, ‘Life is first boredom, then fear’ (1990: 153) is appropriated and inverted. Here ‘Life is first fear.’ The boredom comes thirty-five years later when the poet experiences his flashback to ‘that back room/in fading December half-light’ and reflects on the consequences of his decision to take the ‘way’ that leads him away from his ‘Combray’ and the hope and expectation invested in that decision: ‘Then boredom’. Thus, in ‘Combray Revisited’ the ‘psychohistorical’ journey back into the poet’s own past, prompted by the taste of a biscuit dipped in PG Tips ‘though not a madeleine/in Linden tea’ – causes him to reflect on, though not to identify, all the experiences that would inform his decision to leave the Town. The poem can perhaps be read as an inversion of Freud’s observation that ‘A strong experience in the present awakens in the creative writer a memory of an earlier experience (usually belonging to his childhood) from which there now proceeds a wish which finds its fulfilment in the creative work’ (Freud 1985: 139). Here, contrariwise, it is the creative work that contrives to ruefully embody the frustration of ambition.
In ‘As I See You’ the historical focus is an external one as the poet scans the pages of an old album for a photograph of a friend who is now dead and ‘ponder[s]/ the theoretical possibility/ of an algorithm/ for the distance/ that time creates’ (Page 2016: 7). The photographs have an uncanny ability to speak to the past – ‘a 1950s wedding,/a picnic on the Sunny Sands/long before you were born/or posed beside the Hillman Imp/you’d never drive’, all of them portraying a time that is manifestly not now in places that somehow are. So dislocated is the poet by the experience of looking through the album, of witnessing a ‘strange familiar’ past he never quite knew, that when he finds the object of his quest ‘I almost miss you/ haring into view/ from the many storeyed house/ where you’d grow up.’
Uniquely in this collection, the poem sees the poet make the journey back into someone else’s past, albeit one that shares many commonalities with his own. The time of the photograph is a time the poet has known, but the experience of it is one he can share only after his friend’s death as ‘… I hear your voice,/ echoing down the decades: Can I play? Please? Can I?’ There is, perhaps, a particular poignancy in this coming together of two individuals, one living, one now dead, as a result of a photographic image of this ‘strange familiar’ place: the Town, but the town of half a century ago. By the end of the poem ‘the theoretical possibility/ of an algorithm/ for the distances/ that time creates’ seems somehow more real. In ‘The Avenue’ the arrival of Christmas Eve years after the poet’s departure from the Town sends him back to the avenue where he grew up, where he ‘knew the occupants of every terraced house,/ whether they took/ the Mirror, Express or Sketch/ where they went on holiday/ and what they tipped at Christmas’ (Page 2016: 8–9). Recollections of the Avenue’s geography and history are fragmentary, episodic and disconnected in time, their only link the poet’s psychogeographical – and perhaps psychohistorical – explorations. Reference is made to long-term residents, to the Kingdom Hall ‘where we played scratch cricket/ any day but Sunday’, to the destruction of number 13 by the Luftwaffe in World War Two, and to Harold Butterworth, who ‘took the Soviet Weekly/ and wore a Krushchev hat.’ From the standpoint of ‘now’ (one Christmas Eve) the poet ponders the significance of the Avenue as the site of so much formative experience, where ‘aged five, in a winter/ when snow lay thick and powderfine/ for months/ [he] ventured forth’, and later ‘dreamed/ the dreams of adolescence/ and learned what nightmare means.’ By the end of the poem, the length of the Avenue emerges as a metaphor for the journey not only from there to here but from then to now, as the poet ‘see[s] time future/ contained in time past, and understand[s]/ at last why home is where we start from.’ There is a suggestion here, echoing one suggested earlier by the poem ‘Mistaken Identity’, that in the idea of ‘home’ lies our best hope of working out who we really are.
If the poet’s intention in ‘The Avenue’ is, at some level, to explore the significance of ‘home’ in the unfolding of a life over time, his purpose in ‘Through the Brickworks to the Hills’ seems an altogether bleaker one. The uncomfortable nature of the subject matter – the apparent recurrent failure of life to deliver – is signalled by the use of the third person:
On November-coloured days
he felt the disenchantment
of the world, and reproached it
for his sense of losing
something that he’d never had. (Page 2016: 10)
The bargain life has consistently failed to keep finds expression here in the contrast between a rain-soaked present and a past where the poet ‘[woke] early in the attic room/ the first morning of summer/ …/ with the prospect of the pathway/ through the brickworks to the hills.’ The vision of the past evoked here is a notably less ambivalent one than that evoked elsewhere. The word ‘prospect’ may be required to carry a lot of weight in the penultimate line, but a sense of hope and expectation is clearly indicated by ‘the first morning of summer/ sunlight dappling wallpaper.’ This is perhaps the only poem in the collection in which a lost Eden is intimated.
The attic room first visited as a site of mystery in the opening poem ‘Mistaken Identity’, and glimpsed again as the focus of keen anticipation and youthful hope in ‘Through the Brickworks to the Hills’, is again described in the first of the collection’s two title poems, ‘Stepping Back’. This is the second poem in which the first person pronoun is consciously avoided, and again it is tempting to conclude that this avoidance speaks to an uneasy relationship between the poet and the subject matter. In the first three stanzas he is back in the attic room, where ‘he hasn’t slept … for a year or more’ (Page 2016: 12), surrounded by emblems of decline and decay that seem to mirror the recent history of the town. In the last three lines of the poem the focus shifts:
Downstairs, two people sit in chairs
they’ve come to claim, growing older,
slowly growing faint.
Here, ‘they’ve come to claim’ is perhaps intentionally ambiguous: they’ve come in order to claim, as if this were somehow their destiny; and/or that this is something that has happened – or come to pass – over time. The difference between him/’me’ and these two people is both temporal and spatial: temporal in that ‘he hasn’t slept here for a year or more’, spatial as codified in the different storeys of the house. The distance between the two rooms referenced, a distance presumably negotiated via flights of stairs, constitutes a symbolic space in which the poet has grown away from ‘home’, where ‘books he should have taken long ago/ rot slowly on their slowly rotting shelves.’ The attic room emerges here as a museum of curiosities – a ‘bear [who] has long since lost his stuffing… dozens of/ letters from Katie B from Southport/ who went barefoot and liked the Eagles’ – frozen in time. Here are more clues from which answers to the questions posed by the collection’s opening poem ‘Mistaken Identity’ may be inferred, but invested with some of the attributes of the malign influences of time. There is no hint of a lost Eden here, but perhaps a nod to ‘time future/ contained in time past.’
‘Eclipse’ sees the poet bear witness to the eponymous event in the company of his aged mother and his daughter, who have collectively ‘spent/ a hundred and fifty years/ on this blue planet’ (Page 2016: 13). The dimensions of time and space are conflated in this poem as three generations come together in the ‘postage stamp garden’ of the poet’s childhood home ‘to gaze into the darkest reaches/ of this cold March night.’ The garden’s modest dimensions are implicitly contrasted with the vastness of the universe in which the eclipse is taking place, and the sharing of the experience ‘for one tiny moment’ allows the poet a sense of ‘the wonder/ that is [his] as much as theirs.’ Thus an event defined in time by its singularity and in space by its rendering of the moon ‘strangely local’ locates the poet as the link between generations, between mother and granddaughter who, as females, can otherwise ‘claim a kinship/ with the moon that [he’s] denied.’
Intergeneralionality is further explored in ‘Easter Day’, where time shifts between 1935, an undefined Easter Day when the poet walks in a graveyard with his father, and ‘now’ when the poet returns in the company of his young son to visit the grave of his father, who is now numbered ‘among those who fell asleep/ or passed away’ (Page 2016: 20). There is an insistentce here on the notion of return as an iterative process, but also as critical underpinning of the poet’s connection with place. He is reminded of family history, but is also prompted to reflect on ‘our only lonely certainty’ as referenced elsewhere in ‘Memento Mori’ (Page 2016: 26): ‘and perhaps we sense/ our own shades in that place/ among those who fell asleep/ or passed away’.
‘Roll-Call of the Literary Dead’ celebrates the Town’s literary past and the poet’s keen awareness of it, with overt reference to ‘Dickens, C’, who ‘came here to write’ (Page 2016: 22), ‘Larkin, P’ who ‘spent/ summer holidays here in those strange, still years/ between the war to end all wars and one that followed’, and ‘Beckett, S’ who ‘traversa la Manche to tie his/ reluctant matrimonial knot.’ The poet senses the shades of these dead writers on one of his returns to the town (actual or imagined), and acknowledges their legacy in ‘the books [he’d] be/ a lifetime reading: Hard Times, High Windows, More Pricks than Kicks’. Thus, from the standpoint of ‘now’ (actually 1994, the year in which the poem was commissioned – appropriately perhaps – for the ‘Century of Kent Writers’ project), the poet reflects on how the literary influences of his youth have informed and perhaps played out in the intervening years. The very act of ‘walking on the Leas,/ late autumn’ in the steps of three literary giants prompts a recognition of his own connectedness to place, to the Town as a site of memory, association and ambition. The poem looks back to the poet’s youth and from there back to the various points at which the ‘literary dead’ roamed the Town and forward to ‘all the books [he’d] be/ a lifetime reading’, echoing Christian Boltanski’s observation that the town is ‘full of ghosts’ (in Schlieker 2008). Here the ghosts, paradoxically, are all men of substance, who have left significant, if occasionally impalpable traces in the Town.
‘Close Season’ sees the poet recast as reflective observer of the Town in late autumn/early winter when ‘it smells of dead holidays’ (Page 2016: 25). This poem is characterised by a melancholic evocation of absence in a land- and seascape where ‘offshore, somewhere close, a ship’s bell tolls/ for something gone, for some thing.’ The seaside out of season is represented as an empty stage set echoing with the resonance of loss. A sense of entropy permeates the lines, finding its ultimate expression in ‘the sea in all the shades/ of grey on Richter’s palette.’ More than any other, perhaps, ‘Close Season’ speaks to the relentlessness of the Town’s decline.
The collection’s final poem, ‘Resubmission for the Ordinary Level Examination in Psychogeography’ (Page 2016: 28 – 30), performs a broadly summative function. It opens on another Christmas Eve, on which the poet returns from overseas to home and Heimat as ‘the ferry’s only foot passenger’. Thus begins a final psychogeographical ramble through time and space which sees the poet recall his great uncle Walter ‘(1897 – 1916)’ ‘marching to his death/ on the killing fields of France’ and remembered by virtue of ‘a numbered stone/ for every man who marched/ down Remembrance Hill to his death/ on the Somme.’ There is frequent ludic interplay between past and present as, for example, when the poet sees the shoe worn by his accomplice in some memorable youthful tryst ‘with its impossibly high heel/ cast in bronze/ (…) the star of this year’s summer exhibition.’
The first section – ‘Paper One’ of the resubmission, as it is framed – concludes with the poet reflecting on the impossibility of return as he looks back on fairground lights, which, like distant stars, ‘take years to reach (him)’ as he sees himself ‘on dodgems/ half a life ago’:
and Walter never did return
any more than I can slip back
forty years to the fairground,
those brightly burning lights.
‘Paper Two’ sees the poet and friends – ‘a random dozen now’ – reassemble on the clifftop to remember ‘Jono’, whose late grandfather, who ‘lost the family fortune/ in a game of poker/ in the London bar’, is referenced in ‘Paper One’. Here the poet looks back on the losses and gains of his own life and those of his friends and contemporaries – ‘all the baggage we’ve acquired’ – and engages in an act of collective memory, remembering ‘Jono, all of us, the fairground lights,/ the paths that led/ from there to here/ from then to now,/ our yesterdays, and all of our tomorrows.’ The notion of ‘remembering the future’ is critical to the underlying narrative of the collection, in which place – ‘the Town’ – is the constant against which the triumphs and vicissitudes of a life may be played out. There is an inevitable tension between the poet ‘growing away’ from his hometown and the place becoming ever more itself, echoing the words of Tom Dyckhoff, and here, finally, the Town must be named: ‘Folkestone is the new and, indeed, the old Folkestone. I visit often, always agog at how much more like itself it’s become, more Folkestoney, more magnificent’ (Dyckhoff 2015). Every return is different, he seems to suggest, because with every return we bring something different back with us in the shape of lived experience. Conversely, the Town remains stubbornly itself, its cumulative identities somehow reflecting his own.
The act of compiling the Resubmission was in itself a retrospective psychogeographical journey of exploration through a succession of physical and temporal landmarks, each of which perhaps uncovered a further layer of self. It is only now, in conclusion, that I feel able to acknowledge myself as the frequently unreliable narrator who has negotiated the difficult terrain between fact and fiction, there and here, then and now, and to use the first person pronoun: as if I may now have earned the right to tentatively assume the identity of participant/researcher (or interrogator). Raymond Williams (1980) has remarked that autobiography is neither fictive nor non-fictive, and the various selves I have encountered in revisiting the poems in the Resubmission in an attempt to make meaning from a life in relation to a place have underlined the truth of his observation. Bollnow (1963) has remarked that ‘Every location in experienced space has its own significance for human beings’, and this has never seemed truer to me than in my efforts to identify the staging posts on this psychogeographical journey. Schlieker notes that ‘our understanding of home is intimately connected to our sense of self and identity’ (Schlieker 2011: 10), and goes on to identify as a theme of her second Triennial what is perhaps also the most significant thread in the Resubmission: ‘Reflection on what makes something familiar, what creates bonds and nurtures a sense of belonging, and what imaginative solutions evolve to recreate a sense of home when we are away from it…’
No English examination board has ever set an ordinary level examination in Psychogeography and no submission ever preceded this ‘resubmission’, but if the learning outcomes of the non-existent syllabus can be summarised as ‘the composition of a mental map transposed upon the physical layout (co-ordinates) of place’ (Coverley 2010: 16), then the act of compiling the Resubmission, of revisiting place by interrogating the poems that have given expression to the poet’s relationship with it over time, may perhaps be deemed to have met them and may therefore warrant a tentative ‘pass’ – Helena Nelson’s (2017) designation of the ‘reader as examiner … poet as failed student’ notwithstanding.
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