Review of the reads – May 2024

Words by:
Yusef Sayed
Featured in:
May 2024

Yusef Sayed’s review of the reads.

Come Here to this Gate by Rory Waterman
Published by Carcanet, price £11.99

As its title suggests, Rory Waterman’s fourth collection features poems about intimacy and distance, the barriers between people, and the possible ways through.

The first sequence documents the last year in the life of Waterman’s father, who suffered from alcohol-related dementia. Waterman captures the clinical routine of visiting hours and the intermittent connection in deeply affective ways. The verses of ‘The Shortest Day, Intwood Ward’ resemble the ‘row of bays’, while ‘Alcohol Dementia’ uses war imagery to describe the effects of long-term illness – on patient and family members: ‘The sheep-tracks of my mind are worn to trenches. / A no-man’s land lies open on the bed / with nothing left to stop me crossing it’. The poems evoke bitterness and tenderness, above all love, as the father’s departure brings with it a new sense of closeness – all leading to the exquisite ‘Private Ceremony’.

The experience of the recent pandemic and lockdowns – which imposed intimacies and distances in unanticipated ways – is explored in ‘The Burr’ and ‘Lockdown Man’. Although the second section of the book ranges more widely in subject matter, voice and rhyme scheme, the theme persists of negotiating living arrangements and relationships to the past, also partly inspired by a trip to Korea. Even the influence of older poets, Marvell and Walter De La Mare, is acknowledged only ‘distantly’.

The third section focuses on Lincolnshire, connecting readers to the past through a retelling of the Yallery Brown, Nanny Rutt, Lincoln Imp and Metheringham Lass stories. These inspired a new project on Lincolnshire Folk Tales currently led by Waterman, who grew up in the county. Colourful, bawdy and rhythmical, their title characters lure others, entice and menace them. Local surroundings, elsewhere in the collection a source of consolation, are here hiding perils.

Many of the strands come together in the rawness, ghostly images and emotional currents of ‘Envoi’, where the gate encountered by the narrator ‘wouldn’t budge’. Just at the point of leaving, the narrator is called back – and Waterman’s poems call us back to read again, promising new openings.

Witham ‘N’ Blues by Mike Murphy
Published by Cranthorpe Millner, price £8.99

This comic novel imagines Lincolnshire as the fertile soil for much of the 20th century’s popular music. Otis K Spanner III is a visiting professor from Alabama who, along with his research team from the University of Lindum, uncovers all manner of extraordinary links between the county’s villages, towns and communities and some of the biggest icons and musical trends.

Lincoln based author Mike Murphy’s formula for bringing this concept to life is a non-stop series of puns, as Spanner drives north to Gainsborough, out to Woodhall, the Wolds and the Fens to learn more from a cast of Lincolnshire locals. The wordplay is sometimes subtle, often contrived. The sheer relentlessness of the technique does nothing to elevate this oft-disparaged form of humour. But Murphy does make so many niche references – both local and musical – that readers may enjoy being seriously tested on their knowledge as they follow Spanner on his journey.

The story blends truth and outlandish fiction. Among all the fabulation and corniness, there is a respect and fondness for the county. Murphy shares plenty of real links between Lincolnshire and popular music: million-selling songwriters Bernie Taupin and Rod Temperton’s backgrounds in Market Rasen; namechecking gems by largely forgotten bands The Casuals and Amazing Blondel; the incredible line-up of the 1972 Bardney Pop Festival. Lincolnshire’s independent record shops and their owners – Off the Beaten Tracks, Back to Mono – also feature in Spanner’s research.

The action builds towards a prestigious food and music awards ceremony, the unexpected death of a musical legend, and Spanner’s burgeoning romance with local DJ Daphne Heckington. From start to finish Witham ‘N’ Blues is an unashamed send-up of modern culture and the county’s places and history.

It relies far too heavily on the pun for its comedic tone, but there are unexpected surprises that even those resistant to this style will concede, as Murphy continues to double down on his dizzying, surreal clash of cultures to the very end – and even the proudest music buffs will likely discover something they didn’t previously know.

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