English Flâneur in the Most Unlikely of Places – One Local’s Take on Peter Robinson’s The Constitutionals
John Betjeman’s ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough’ echoes in my ears when I recall how I resented growing up in Reading rather than the idyll of my grandparents’ Mayo farm. I only realized my prejudice when a lifelong friend recently countered somewhat affronted: ‘I really liked growing up in Reading!’ And then, in 2007, Peter Robinson arrived in the town after his eighteen-year sojourn in Japan.
Our paths had first crossed when he did the highly unusual thing of writing to thank me for reviewing one of his books. Uncanny, then, that he should relocate just minutes’ walk from my mother’s home, resulting in: a fluttering back and forth of emails on said friend’s local knowledge of children’s schools; a mild – we can laugh about it now – bumping of his wife Ornella and my mum’s cars at the awkwardly placed mini-roundabout outside their new house; my brother David finding in him the catalyst to start writing again after a twenty-year gap, and my discovery of the benefits of capturing an emotion in the moment – a trait that Peter has put to powerful effect in his poetry.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Here’s our dad on the steps of our three-storey house in South Street in 1960 – me, spoilt baby girl, David left, looking like one of the Bash Street Kids, and Martin, never seen without his cowboy hat, lifelong supporter of Reading Football Club, who, sadly passed away in December 2021. Our house has long been demolished but similar ones remain including the former location of Reading’s seventies employment exchange, now the South Street Arts Centre and home of the Reading Poets’ Café.
Yes, places and people. David and Peter were both born in 1953 and shared many common experiences with respect to poetry and music. But after a successful start winning a Gregory award and publishing his first book as a student, my brother had all but given up writing. Wonderful then that, one conversation with Peter was enough to reawaken his muse – resulting in an outpouring of books and readings and, ultimately, his High Window Press and Journal, started in 2015.
Even Dad gets a cameo mention, in The Constitutionals as it tracks postwar migrations – one of the enterprising Irish navvies who relocated from Camden to London’s satellite towns for cheaper housing. Here he stands, proud of his domain, and Mum behind the scenes, as our numerous tenants and neighbours piled in to our ‘open house’ to watch their newly acquired TV set: ‘Ah yes, Wagon Train,’ I hear her sigh, ‘we thought that was great.’
Sometime after he arrived, Peter and I walked around Reading University’s campus, Whiteknights Park. He, jokingly, acknowledged the delightful watery atmosphere of the swans among the reeds. ‘Yes, absolutely, but I can’t do anything with this,’ he said, though his latest collection, Retrieved Attachments, proves him wrong. Nevertheless, in The Constitutionals he notes: ‘rooflines and gable-ends…their crisscross of washing lines, the woodwork, outhouses…it might be my primal landscape’ (p.25), while the eyesore of the Kennet Canal gasworks has a ‘lovely old, rusty old gasometer’ (p. 113).
See me, then, the Readingite, looking through the lens of The Constitutionals, a Gertrude to his Hamlet: ‘Come and sit you down, you shall not budge! / You go not till I set you up a glass / Where you may see the inmost part of you’ (Act 3. Sc. 4). Goodness, was the unnervingly high, rickety Horseshoe Bridge actually tacked onto a bridge built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel? And that so familiar descent from the train station couldn’t possibly be an artificial construction by his gangs of navvies, those great gods of manually shifted earth, could it? As for the three-shelled emblem on my old school blazer – that just belonged to us, not to the whole town, surely? And who’s ever heard of the Victorian Mrs. Dyer who drowned multiple babies at Caversham weir close to our own icy, leaf strewn Kings Meadow open air pool where we had those shivering school swimming lessons back in the day?
No question, the narrator of The Constitutionals in this thinly veiled autobiographical outing is Reading’s perfect flâneur, not the original aimless wanderer with too much money (definitely not) and time on his hands, but Walter Benjamin’s more nuanced individual: ‘the observer, the witness, the stroller of the commodity-obsessed marketplace. He synchronises himself with the shock experience of modern life […] to lead us toward an ‘awakening’ – the moment at which the past and present recognise each other’ and the ‘flâneur is the virtuoso of … empathy’, he writes in ‘The Arcades Project’.
Robinson’s ‘empathy’ is in full flight by the book’s conclusion, but it also surfaces lightly here and there on his daily walks where he sets out with the futile hope that he might thus overthrow neo-liberal capitalism and the more likely one that they may help cure a mystifying virus that has left his doctors stumped, where ‘you never do feel your old self again, for your old self is gone forever’ (p. 5). In the process, he takes us on a psycho-geographic journey which leaves no architectural stone unturned in revealing Reading’s landscape, history and myriad cultural associations, the whole purpose of which is he tells us is that he ‘might be trying to re-appropriate the soundtrack to what remained from the thing that was once optimistically called ‘my life’ (p. 15).
And, in the process, he takes us through the cultural impact of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as well as how it came to be his narrator’s favourite book. The upside of being landed with the name ‘Crusoe’ by name-calling bullies was that it directed him to a love of words: ‘I was able to find an identity, and what started to look like a vocation … it was to those mockers that I owed my life’ (p. 39). The first signs of the book’s empathy is then movingly directed towards them as victims of their own lack of resources or identity: ‘the damaged emptiness of others, passed on like a childhood malady or plague, so that those tinkling cymbals and sounding brasses can feel a little bit less empty, by reducing the painful contrast with their absent selves – or merely out of spite’ (p. 40).
From here, the Crusoe label enables him to consider ‘the idea of both needing to be among people, and needing to be away from them’ (p. 41). Thus, along with the running gag of calling his wife Friday, which she hates, he proceeds with delightful little snatches of Crusoe imagery to consider the nature of The Constitutionals project: ‘my message in its bottle, starting out towards that dangerous coast, the landfall of publication … those private words of mine, this pretended autobiography, or sea voyage into the past, and return to the disappearing present’ (p. 39).
Those unpleasant memories of bullying reinforce his present isolation both as a returned exile and suffering this present malady, which triggers a false memory of being reborn: ‘being hurled onto dry land from the breaking waters, as if my mother had haplessly marooned me, cast me away from this spinning desert island of a world’ (p. 42) with little hope of recovery: ‘You wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry at this sorry specimen – for recovery had left me a castaway on the shores of whatever life remained’ (p. 57).
But before seeing that recovery building to a delightful crescendo, let us first return to his impact on us locals. Here we are where the town centre’s ‘might have been’ jewels-in-the-crown converge: Reading Gaol, the Abbey Ruins and The Forbury Gardens which Robinson believes could have been another Canterbury if Henry the Eighth hadn’t destroyed it. But at least Oscar Wilde is now a celebrated emblem of the town in spite of the current unresolved question as to what to do with the disused HMP Reading: ‘Transformed from imprisoned outcast to martyr and saint of sexual liberation and gay pride, he had taken over from Reading Sauce or Simonds beers [where our Dad worked between labouring jobs] or Huntley and Palmers biscuits [where my brother Martin was employed for years] (p. 188).
And this is the very spot that just happens to be the very heartland of the Catholic working-class Irish: St James’s church and primary school with its annual processions through the Forbury with me as flower girl and David as altar boy. Here, my brother captures well the languor of a soon to be rejected Catholicism along with the procession meandering past the Gardens centre-piece, the Maiwand Lion (about which Peter furnishes many interesting anecdotes) as well as their mutual take on the country’s unrelenting economic boom and bust:
hagiography and a dead language
bound us to our past, the tedium also
of a Corpus Christi parade winding
slowly through these gardens, the air heavy
with hymns and incense, my tired head mesmerized
by a thurible clattering against its chains.
Today even the Lion towering above on
his plinth seems at a loss to justify
those fallen in Afghan wars, staring,
muscle-bound, into a sky where cranes loll
ponderingly, raising disposable
futures from a debris of junked decades
(‘The Forbury Gardens, Reading’)
Meanwhile, I am back in the girls’ playground more suitably placed than the boys’, with its tantalising keyhole into the Abbey Ruins’ ‘love seat’: ‘we would spy through a door in the wall / to a tangle of raw limbs: mini skirt / and drain-pipes ignorant of our illicit gazing…’ (‘Peter Pan’):
We didn’t know it but we were right there
at the start: The Abbey Ruins with the first
written song: ‘Summer is icumen in
loudly sing cuckoo – Cuckoo!’
Wilde’s Reading gaol wasn’t far away –
our school back onto both.
And we were as rough as the flint which
bordered our school playground.
(‘Learning to Read’)
Even more unnervingly accurate is Robinson’s description of our own Eastern Avenue, with its new builds evolving over time in the sold off plots of the grander houses’ gardens: ‘as if you were having to elbow your way through an oddly alluring crowd of old grey ghosts’ (p.45). Growing up surrounded by doctors, teachers and professors was a lived reality for us, and how we must have ‘lowered the tone’ as our now subcontractor Dad unloaded his transit van of fellow navvies each evening, or those Saturdays when Mum responded to our yells of: ‘Mum, is it time for the jumble sale yet?’ with ‘Sssh! We don’t want the neighbours knowing.’ Such visible signs of social difference were also there to taunt the returning Robinson looking for a mortgage just before the Credit Crunch; but even as a child I was also aware of it, living in a house where we had inherited the towering trees of those grander gardens:
Crippled giants cut back because they
shouldn’t have been there in the first place
not like the ‘plantation’ across the way
with its mystery girls in their green-ribboned boaters.
And Robinson’s following in our tracks doesn’t stop there, for at the bottom of the road, we had also long imagined our Dad turning in his grave on the discovery that his local, ‘the Granby’, had become a short-lived ice-cream parlour. So it is amusing to read Robinson’s imagined sighting of the French Symbolist poet, Arthur Rimbaud:
‘wandering out along the King’s Road in the direction of London and pausing for a drink at the Marquis of Granby to down a pint of foaming English beer, to eye the barmaid’s figure, eat a ham sandwich, and plan his next escape?’ (p. 216).
This is a far cry from all dad’s cronies congregating there and occasionally making the local Reading Chronicle after the latest pub brawl, much to our amusement, as we read out the list of false names they’d given. Less amusing – though we can also laugh about this now – to recall reading about our Dad himself being called up before the beak for playing Pitch and Toss outside the pub – oh dear, what would the neighbours say?
As Robinson continues to consider his own isolation, he becomes increasingly aware of how much public spaces have changed: ‘In comparison to the black-and-white footage of old twentieth-century urban areas there as so few people around…no signs of children playing out in the street…it makes you wonder what has happened to the idea of shared community spaces have they become deserted through a species of social fear’ (p. 249).
This brought to mind reminiscences I had gathered from another significant Readingite, my mum’s second husband Brian Blackburn, now in his nineties who grew up Great Knolleys Street, near the old Central Swimming Pool. Though we grew up thinking it the roughest street in Reading, Brian wore it as a badge of pride: ‘Oh, yes, we were the Great Knolleys Street boys’: ‘This was during the time of the Blitz. In them days Great Knollys Street was a great community. All the men were away and the grandads did all the control. My grandad used to tick of all the kids out in the street and wasn’t past giving you a clip around the ear. He’d sort out all the kids in the street and they needed it some of them. That’s how it was in our day’.
As the book winds to its close, there is a delicately constructed shift in Robinson’s state of mind. The double realisation that he is actually getting better and that there is no Quixotic solution to the world’s ills, which have possessed him during his walks, creeps up on him unawares. It comes first, like little chinks of nature on his human walks as he tries to locate some kind of shared experience with the people around him: ‘my attention would keep drifting back to the rooftops and sky. It would alight for a moment on the passers-by across the way from the hoardings – for there were so few signs around here of the sorts of mutual recognition that a lonely soul returned to his home country might hope to find in the encounter of everyday outings to the post office and shops’ (p. 149).
And as he recovers, he convinces himself that the walks had a second purpose of trying to make a difference ‘to the political life of the world by going on a walk’ (p. 253) and in this context thinks of all the great marches in history which were to make a difference: Jarrow, CND, and the like. Yet almost in the same breath he distances himself from such heroic notions, cutting himself down to size as just one of the many poets in their ‘purposeless drifting’ (p. 257). All the same, the reader feels a certain quiet joy at his accounts of recovery which also comes with the change in the weather: ‘the lushness of our greenery might be the illusion of more time created by the longer days, the daylight stretching on towards more time related by longer days’ (p. 255): ‘it suddenly dawned how you had yourself changed, had changed yourself, how these constitutionals really must have made a difference, that this was, for better or worse, another person than the one who had set out on them at one ambiguous beginning of spring. Yet peculiarly coloured by these circumstances […] this person appeared to have got sharper too, making me even more like Robinson returned to his home world’ (p. 272).
And as he works through what this might mean for what he can ‘do’ in the world, he comes to the very real conclusion that there are no grand schemes but just the resilience to keep going: ‘like those who are undefeated because they have gone on walking, in whatever, long march or constitutional, I had no other choice than to get out of the house, to recover my health, to get myself back to fitness, all in aid of returning to face the struggle once more’ (p. 265). By the book’s close, I felt it had achieved what the meta-narrative of its ‘editor’ had claimed was the author’s desire, that it should offer a balm ‘for the salve of his own damaged self and for that of the world’ (p. 295).
Reading it had led me to a reflection of my own as I looked back to some of my first poems, this one written in the eighties in my ‘courting days’ as our parents would call it, only to discover, now in Benedick’s words: ‘A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts’ (Act 5. Sc 4 Much Ado About Nothing), when Stephen and I used to stroll back from town dropping off to have a pint in the ‘Jolly Anglers’ – perhaps, even back then, I had taken something of Reading’s unspectacular charm as my own:
Grey on grey. In the distance
swans would move under a fog
tuned to the fine eye of the eskimo,
back and forth with no colour.
At times I also felt our shadows
also embrace the canal,
just like those shadows
we searched beyond the fog
while nameless holly
offered up its berries,
a drop in the ocean
in this harsh monochrome.
A little way along the
would stand immense
against changing skies
and on late evenings
you could hear the river’s
heaving monster breathe,
and could catch
the moon-reflected ripples
of the dark swan
as it made its
flight through water.
Belinda Cooke is a widely published poet, translator and reviewer. She has published seven collections, including translations from both Russian and Kazakh. Best known for her translations of Maria Tsvetaeva, she has recently written a prose memoir of her mother’s life: From the Back of Beyond to Westland Row: A Mayo Woman’s Story (The High Window Press, 2022). Her latest collection, The Days of the Shorthanded Shovelists, is due out from Salmon Poetry in 2024.
 For a thorough discussions of Benjamin’s interpretation of the term see https://psychogeographicreview.com/baudelaire-benjamin-and-the-birth-of-the-flaneur/
 For an account of its building history see the self-published Vaughan, Philip. The Avenue Story: Eastern Avenue and its People through Two Centuries. Self-published. Available in Reading Library.