TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK—20: WILLIAM BEDFORD
William Bedford has published novels, children’s novels, short stories and several volumes of poetry. He lived in Kensington during the nineteen sixties, working in the City of London before becoming an academic. His novel Happiland was shortlisted for the 1990 Guardian Fiction Prize. His selected poems, Collecting Bottle Tops, and selected short stories, None of the Cadillacs Was Pink, were both published in 2009.
William Bedford writes:
The most important experience in my writing life happened in 1959, when we moved from the east coast of Lincolnshire to USAF Hemswell in north Lincolnshire. My father was the civilian police officer, responsible for seven isolated villages. The Americans were there with their intermediate nuclear missile programme. A group of scientists from the Douglas Company who were working on the fuelling programme were also on the camp. Among their families, I made friendships which have lasted through the decades.
The first serious literature I read – virtually the first books I read – were the great American poets, novelists and dramatists of that generation. By the time I was sixteen, I was reading Lowell, Berryman, Ginsberg, Carlos Williams, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, Hemingway, Faulkner, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. I also read Shakespeare and the English classics, but more importantly for my own writing Chekhov’s short stories and plays, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was obsessed with Ted Hughes, the one contemporary English writer who attracted Alvarez.
The Americans brought their own way of life with them – cars and fridges and televisions we had never seen – an all-night ten pin bowling alley in one of the empty hangars, cheeseburgers and hi-fi systems. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue was the background music to these experiences, Jackson Pollock the scenery, New York and California the imagery colouring my ambitions.
Though I have written extensively about the farming background of my father’s family, and the east end slums background of my mother’s Sheffield family, the rhythms of American poetry and prose are the deepest influence in what I have tried to write. I never struggled to escape the influence of the iambic pentameter – Eliot and Pound’s ambition – because I came too late to traditional English versification – or at least the dominant tradition until Ted Hughes pointed out the deeper roots of English versification. And in prose, when Saul Bellow begins The Adventures of Augie March with ‘I am an American, Chicago Born’, I immediately fell in love with the declarative tone.
WHEN THE AMERICANS CAME
USAF Hemswell: North Lincolnshire 1962
When the Americans came,
they didn’t take to our gardens:
the apple orchard smelling of wild garlic,
foxgloves growing among the runner beans.
‘Do you have vampires around here?’
a visitor from Carolina asked me.
It was a shambles, Wilfred knew that,
nodding wisely as though apologising
for the ill manners of King George,
the clematis purple in the thatched roofing.
But come the softe sonne,
there are oxlips in Fry’s woods,
forget-me-nots in the shallow stream,
lettuce and spring onions for a salad.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat*
I tried to tell them. But they weren’t women,
and didn’t care to listen to a boy.
They preferred the red rosehips
we used for making wine.
Danced outside the village church
round the maypole Jack Parnham made.
Now they’re gone,
the wild garlic has returned.
*W.B.Yeats, ‘A Prayer for my Daughter.’
for Trisha: October 1962
I bring you Ezra Pound’s poems,
sliding foxily the fox lanes,
the six o’clock dawn bristle.
But your father opens the door,
stiffening for duty,
ready for war.
The camp is no place for poets.
Military mowers cut the grass.
The air is nuclear.
‘Traitor!’ flares from his mouth. ‘Mad!’
I run for shelter.
‘Love,’ I want to shout. ‘Love.’
The dawn’s red lunatic.
[from The Dancers of Colbek]