Sunday, 23 September 2012

Soul-brother poet William Wilfrid Gibson - another heat-hater

My choice of poem to read at last week's Pass On a Poem meeting here in Chiswick proved ill-timed, thanks to the weather. I had settled on William Wilfrid Gibson's delightful "The Ice Cart", having assumed that we'd be sweltering in an Indian Summer here in London by now - but I should have listened to my brother, whose theory is that there are a maximum of three genuinely hot weeks every year, and the rest in propaganda. As the weather's turned autumnally nippy - and it's now pouring with rain - he has been proved right yet again.

As a number of other readers chose works by First World War poets who perished in that conflict, it was nice to be able to tell the audience that mine not only survived, but lasted until 1962 (undoubtedly because his poor eye-sight meant he was never sent to the front). Gibson, who was a close friend of many of the more celebrated poets of his era, isn't exactly a household name these days, but "The Ice Cart" was once popular enough to merit inclusion in the first anthology of listeners' favourites issued by Radio 4's excellent Poetry Please! programme - and that's where I first read it. An elderly lady at the gathering told me afterwards that she remembered it being read to her at school, so it must have been quite famous once.

I prefaced my reading by explaining how much I hated hot weather, and how much I resented that annoying grin TV weather forecasters adopt whenever reporting that we're going to be sweating like pigs the next day in a city that simply isn't designed to provide relief from heat. I said I realised this placed me in a minority - and was surprised when at least 80% of the audience loudly echoed my view (media weather-folk take note).

I didn't get to read "The Ice Cart" on a sweltering evening - but it seemed to go down quite well, nonetheless:

 Perched on my city office-stool,
 I watched with envy, while a cool
 And lucky carter handled ice. . . .
 And I was wandering in a trice,
 Far from the grey and grimy heat
 Of that intolerable street,
 O'er a sapphire berg and emerald floe,
 Beneath the still, cold ruby glow
 Of everlasting Polar night,
 Bewildered by the queer half-light,
 Until I stumbled, unawares,
 Upon a creek where big white bears
 Plunged headlong down with flourished heels
 And floundered after shining seals
 Through shivering seas of blinding blue.
 And as I watched them, ere I knew,
 I'd stripped, and I was swimming too,
 Among the seal-pack, young and hale,
 And thrusting on with threshing tail,
 With twist and twirl and sudden leap
 Through crackling ice and salty deep --
 Diving and doubling with my kind,
 Until, at last, we left behind
 Those big, white, blundering bulks of death,
 And lay, at length, with panting breath
 Upon a far untravelled floe,
 Beneath a gentle drift of snow --
 Snow drifting gently, fine and white,
 Out of the endless Polar night,
 Falling and falling evermore
 Upon that far untravelled shore,
 Till I was buried fathoms deep
 Beneath the cold white drifting sleep --
 Sleep drifting deep,
 Deep drifting sleep. . . .
 The carter cracked a sudden whip:
 I clutched my stool with startled grip.
 Awakening to the grimy heat
 Of that intolerable street.
Afterwards, another attendee told me he'd just taken a trip on the Metropolitan Tube line simply to enjoy the fact that it has actually introduced - wait for it - air-conditioned carriages! The Hammersmith & City line is next, apparently. At bloody last! I hate to think how many times I've ridden on tube trains with a tourist backpack stuck up my hooter, my shirt black with sweat, unable to breathe because the only available air consists of other people's halitotic breath and farty-smelling air drizzling in through the carriage's open windows from the tunnel outside, and being driven mad by the "tsk-tsk-tsk" from the ill-fitting headphones of various wretches' portable music devices while wondering whether being made to travel in temperatures approaching 110 degrees constitutes an abuse of one's human rights. 

I'm sure Mr. Gibson would have agreed. 


  1. An Aesthete Writes24 September 2012 at 09:29

    This is a disappointment. You gave your readers the strongest possible indication that you were planning to shake the poetics of Chiswick to their core with a thundering rendition of one of Zephyr Zodiac's epic deconstrctions of their "have you had your basement done yet" aspirations. Instead you cop out with a piece of escapist poetastery by some old bloke who dreams of swimming with a bunch of polar bears just because it's sunny outside. Well I wouldn't try it in the bear enclosure at Regent's Park pal.

    Are you losing your edge, Gronners?

  2. Actually, Aesthete, you could try it in the bear enclosure at Regent's Park, because London Zoo doesn't house polar bears any longer - but, if the Warmists are right (which they aren't, of course) we'll have polar bears wandering around the park itself before too long, on account of all the Arctic ice meltling.

    As for Gibson's poem - I think it's more a poem about the desire to escape, rather than being an example of escaspism: after all, the narrator ends up sweltering back on his City office stool.

    Re Benjamin Zephyr Zodiac, the Great Man has been so quiet recently that the various poetry groups I attend have heard all his major works several times - I was rather hoping for something new from him, preferably on the plight of "his" people here in Babylon, or the greed of posh Tories, or the suffering caused by the "cuts", or about how The Man is deliberately feeding guns into our ghettoes as an incitement to brothers to murder each other (just as The Man was behind Aids and the availability of drugs and last year's riots) - but I hear a rumour that he's become Poet-in-Residence at Goldman Sachs, who are paying him a fortune not to produce poems which might threaten to destroy the global economy once and for all. I certainly hope those rumours aren't true.

    I'm pretty sure I lost my edge some time in the mid-1990s.

  3. An Aesthete Writes Again25 September 2012 at 02:45

    Your reply is convincing evidence that your edge is as sharply honed as ever. I rather fear that Benny ZZ may have lost his. D.S-K has also retreated into his own strangely shaped bunga bubble. The Fulminators are sadly silent. Are they detoxing at The Priory?

    The times are out of joint for the artist and the poet.

  4. Aesthete. I too badly miss D.S-K and Benjamin Zephyr Zodiac. But, please, do not encourage the return of the Fulminators. It's like having admit that you are related to Sir Jimmy Saville ["They say he never married". "Now then, now then...."]

  5. Gibson reminds me of Zarathustra and the need for the cool, quiet, thin air of the mountains.

    And of Alistair Cooke who, in one of his memoirs, describes the procedure for surviving New York City summers in the 1940s.

    Firstly, a service would arrive in the apartment, put mothballs in all the wardrobes, roll up all the rugs and take them away for refrigerated storage.

    Then the rest of the family would be packed off to the relative cool of Long island.

    The executive husband would dutifully visit them at weekends but, during the week, comfort would be taken where it could in evening meetings with secretaries, like so many big white bears plunging headlong down, as they say, with flourished heels floundering after shiny seals.

    Then some fool invented air conditioning and family life was never the same.