Your Guide to My Best Poems (1) A34 Poems

What You Will or Will Not See

A34 Poems is really just one poem collected in my 2006 collection What You Will See reissued now on Kindle. First published in Yellow Crane in 1996, editors keep coming back to it because it’s an environmental protest about the struggle of one man trying to find his place in a rapidly changing world.

Knuckleised by alopecia

And growing hard to employ,

All roads led south for him.

It’s about an economic migrant from the north of England who’s ‘knuckleised by alopecia’, in other words he’s made to look hard and unattractive by baldness. He sets out south to find work on the A34 with no particular plan. His problem isn’t that he can’t find work, there are always jobs in security or packing, but he doesn’t want that. Booms have passed him by, and yet successive governments punish him with austerity resulting in a sense of not belonging anywhere. He’s become ‘hard to employ’ because he has a symptom of deindustrialisation known as attitude.

What’s so special about this road?

Wikipedia describes the A34 from a southern English point of view, as though it sets off from the south: “The A34 is a major road in England. It runs from the A33 and M3 at Winchester in Hampshire, to the A6 and A6042 in Salford, close to Manchester City Centre. It forms a large part of the major trunk route from Southampton, via Oxford, to Birmingham, The Potteries and Manchester.” Being an actual two-way road, it runs ‘to and from’ both cities in terms of the movement of people.

Due to poor decisions made in the 20th century about the location of Britain’s motorway network (it was sketched on the back of a cigarette packet), subsequent economic policy ensured the A34 became one of the most heavily used roads in the UK. It’s a true north-south road. Margaret Thatcher’s artificial so-called ‘north-south divide’ was never part of any plan to revive Britain, and the number of people losing their livelihoods across the whole country continues to create huge planning and political problems. It’s called an artificial divide because government could fix it overnight if they wanted to stop playing north against south, rich against poor, haves against have nots, young against old, but that’s another story.

Lo-and-behold, a pot of gold

At the end of the A34

Running on Cheltenham turf

You can grow a lovely asparagus there.

In A34 Poems, my economic migrant has a slice of luck, winning on the horses at Cheltenham where you can indeed grow a lovely asparagus in the warm sandy Severn tributary soil. The south is bliss. Romantic. It is truly the Romantic Hardyesque image a northerner has of the south.

He chose it for luck, stretching out

Before him like a vapour trail, the A34,

Magic-markered on his old map

But splattered with short-lived cities.

The ancient route south, hard

To follow in places and tough

Keeping sheep together – thirsty work.

The ‘short-lived cities’ he sees on the map are former industrial towns he passed, Stoke, Walsall and so on into the heart of middle England. His ancestors walked the same route and he fears merging into history newly aware that migration isn’t a new phenomena. It is thirsty work keeping sheep together, and many of Britain’s A-roads are former ancient tracks, sheep droves that were upgraded over the years. The A303, for example, is a pre-Roman track leading to the site of Weyhill fair, and with no place to call home, my migrant has a sense the old road is claiming him for its own.

Works Unit Only, Relief Road blues.

Tiredness Can Kill. Take a Break!,

Takes a leak in a Little Chef, glad

To be back inside before the engine cools,

Glowing in a lay-by for sandwiches

Leaving a tin-foil nugget.

The British road signs only serve as dire warnings: Works Unit Only, Tiredness Can Kill. Maybe he sees the sign You Can’t Cheat Fate.

He stops at a Little Chef, a chain of roadside restaurants in the United Kingdom, founded in 1958 by entrepreneur Sam Alper, modelled on American diners. The last one closed in 2018. History is everywhere.

“Her hair was thick with many a curl

That cluster’d round her head.

She had a rustic, woodland air,

And she was wildly clad.”

“Her hair was thick with many a curl…” is a quote from We Are Seven by William Wordsworth. I used this because of the child’s denial and the Romantic description. There is still plenty of denial and Romanticism regarding working people and what they want.

“Wordsworth’s children” are the rustic rural heirs to past communities still living a wild life like the little cottage girl in We Are Seven. They are the Newbury by-pass protestors, and my migrant feels some kind of connection to their earthly woodland paradise, joining them under their bender. A bender is a makeshift tent, a tree branch bent down to the ground and covered with a tarpaulin.

Proposed by-pass Newbury – a flash

In the woods and Wordsworth’s children

Wave from a tree-branch

Laughing, cooking under a bender.

He joins them for kidney bean curry,

Returns to his bastardised rattler

That won’t start.

When his car won’t restart he is the wandering boy in The Idiot Boy by Wordsworth. Are the wheels dropping off his dream?

“Tell us Johnny, do,

Where all this long night you have been,

What you have heard, what you have seen.”

Continuing his journey south, he arrives on the south coast. The irony is that he’s left the deprived north only to discover Southampton’s deprivation is just as bad. Sink estates are deprived council estates from where there’s no escape. In other words, what he thought was exclusively personal is actually widespread. It’s an artificial divide. A trick.

Sink estate. South shore.

He’s grimly learning permanence from the sea

In the seat of a Cortina

Reading the cross-channel ferry

Timetable, grounded.

Finally, choosing the continent, he finds there are no ferries running across the English channel to France, and he’s going nowhere. But nothing is permanent, not even the sea, and there’s no point sitting staring at it. Is he seeing mass migration from Africa and southern Europe? Is that what stares back at him across the English Channel from The Jungle in Calais?

So how did I end up writing this poem?

If I wrote A34 Poems now, it would be in first person because I feel the artificial divide acutely and I long to simply shout at people to wake up to the destructive forces and not hand power to divisive politicians. At the time of writing A34 I’d benefitted from relocating and the poem was an observation, but now there’s a lot more I want to say.

Who was the migrant?

In the late eighties, I overheard someone in Cheltenham where I lived between 1985 and 1987. A man who travelled from Ireland every year was talking about the A34, his favourite road. Being a frequent north-south traveller, I could add detail to his idyllic vision. It made me think about traditional migration routes that go back thousands of years and of the folk tradition.

I’m a student of Sir Martin Doughty, Environmental Management lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and the chair of Natural England. Martin Doughty’s Friday afternoon lectures were about the bigger picture, the contradictions and inconsistencies in political postures about the environment. He died in 2009, but his influence on what I write continues in all my work.

My main driving force was the destruction of the early Thatcher years arriving on the doorstep of the unsuspecting Thames Valley town of Newbury in the nineties. There was and still is no true north-south motorway in the uk; all motorways lead to and from London. Like the hugely important and precious London Green Belt, Newbury was a structural fault line, a divide that stood on the way of so-called progress, and like all artificial divides, it can and was crushed because the A34 passed right through Newbury.

By the time the bypass was proposed, I was living close to Newbury in Reading, and I walked through the woods that were going to be destroyed by the A34 bypass. When I relocated south, it wasn’t one journey, a one-off migration, it was thousands of journeys. I returned many times to Stockport where friends and relatives lived. Experiencing polar opposites, Stockport and Newbury, inspires art. The scale of what I saw happen, and what I’m still seeing, is immense. In the south, I constantly meet northerners I know who’ve migrated from the north, the northern diaspora, not just Mancunians, but people I know from Sheffield resurface by pure chance in supermarkets, airports and trains.

Can everyone be on the move?

Some people I met from the north had good jobs and great families. They were settled, secure, contented, lived in new houses on good estates, and to see them of all people uprooted fills me with sadness and horror. Imagine the nineteen-seventies sit-com Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads where the Rodney Bewes character Bob turns up in Southampton’s Tescos as a man with a van.

The A34 Newbury bypass route was proposed due to increasing traffic volumes and it was very controversial. In fact, it was unthinkable. Wikipedia: ‘It ran through three Sites of Special Scientific Interest — Snelsmore Common plus the Rivers Lambourn and Kennet; Penn Wood which was part of the North Wessex Downs AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty); the English Heritage registered battlefield site of the first Battle of Newbury during the English Civil War in 1643; and The Chase, a National Trust nature reserve. It was also found that areas of the proposed bypass route were home to a rare snail, known as Desmoulin’s whorl snail.

Between January 1996 and April 1996 the clearance of approximately 360 acres (150 ha) of land including 120 acres (49 ha) of woodland, and the felling of nearly 10,000 mature trees to make way for the construction of the road, led to some of the largest anti-road protests in European history. Around 7,000 people demonstrated on the site of the bypass route in some way and over 800 arrests were made. The cost of policing the protest (known as ‘Operation Prospect’ and run jointly by Thames Valley Police and Hampshire Constabulary) had reached approximately £5 million by December 1996. An additional £30 million was spent on private security guards, security fencing, and security lighting while the works were in progress, of which only £7 million was budgeted for in the original contract.’

All because a bunch of people need free movement

A34 Poems is a poem about the environment, planning, infrastructure, contradictions, a supreme moment of realisation, a Damascene moment when you realise you’re part of a bigger picture, you’ve seen the false divide, an artificial creation and you know the environment can only be saved when you stop being the problem, that it’s your car, your child, your new house, your new school, your new road, your aspirations that are the problem, and no one cares because they’re busy dividing and dominating the planet with an obsession about Gross Domestic Product. Things have to change.

The outfall of the artificial north-south division depicted in A34 Poems resurfaced in the form of the 2016 EU Referendum result and environmental protest against the damage I’m doing to the planet. The poem says unless we stop our obsession with dividing and dominating the planet there will be no future. It’s a warning to Nimbys who oppose new housing developments in their own back yard, but make political choices that create abandoned housing and deprivation everywhere. It takes the side of the people. It’s about a forty year time bomb that’s been ticking since 1979, a political trick, a deep rift at the heart of England that’s been counting down over generations. The genie is out of the bottle.