Monday, 10 January 2000

Host

Sarah Hymas’s confident language and vivid imagery gives an unusual vitality to this collection. In Bedrock four generations speak of their lives in a sequence that pays homage to the institution of the family. A clear eye for period detail and an ear for the inner voice bring the characters to life, their particular fears and pleasures, conflicts and tensions.
Mike Barlow


The voices, the stories, the detail and the imagery are powerful, superbly-crafted and original.
Bernardine Evaristo


These poems are written as though several generations of the same family are still speaking, as the dead and living indeed do in all families.

The poet’s land speaks as an ancestral character, but strangely. A feast of defamiliarisation and significant foregrounding, a nourishing image of lives and landscapes.
Herbert Lomas

There is more information about the Bedrock sequence below the film and other poems on this page of my site

It's published by Waterloo Press if you want to tell them how wonderful it all is, or simply to buy a copy. Or you could get one by emailing me

And if you're undecided, then watch some of these ...










Like, I suspect, many people, I became interested in my family's past after one of my parent's died. In my case, my dad. Ironically, too late to ask direct questions, I was left digging up facts and stories from photographs, property deeds and old newspaper reports.

I did have one advantage. I was born, and grew up, in the house my paternal great grandfather had built for my grandfather and his family (including my dad). The family firm (that transformed from quarriers to builders to hauliers between 1898 to 2008) was based in a yard just up the road from the house. So, plenty of documents to riffle through.

Photographs of my ancestors had always been present, both in the yard office and in the house. They were referred to by first name, as if still alive, their characteristics upheld as aspirational. It was understood we owed them our place in the world.

On reflection, I think my initial research and writing about these family members, and my childhood with them, was an act of grief, an attempt to keep hold of Dad.

But then the bug caught. These people, their beliefs, social restrictions and business dealings, were fascinating, vaguely familiar, with moral codes that chimed with ones from my childhood. My imagination was fuelling facts. My interest in social history was fanned. I started to write poems to fill the narrative. I wanted to trace back and write the lineage that ended with my leaving home: what had fed my understanding of who I was in the world. How were my foundations built?

I have written for years, publishing poems and stories in collections and anthologies. This felt suited to poetry because of my imaginative response to historical fact, for the crystallisation of the voices and for the best use of the piecemeal information I found.

The story, Bedrock, is limited, episodic, like family mythologies are. There are seven players: each giving their version of events from 1898 to 2008. The poems that follow are from the beginning of that narrative and are from Harold, the quarrier, his wife Hannah and their son, John. My great grandfather, great grandmother and grandfather respectfully.

Harold followed the gold rush to Canada at the end of the 19th century, returned unsuccessful and yet with a determination to make good. I visited the site of this quarry a few years back. It is mainly overgrown with pine trees, but traces of the pit are still evident. It is 10 miles to the north of Harrogate in Yorkshire, England:

Klondike, 1898

I name this quarry, this earthen altar,
after the hope of thousands of men
I met halfway to Alaska.
Their hearts bridled to a gilt god.
Turning home, I saw the fortune in Yorkshire grit.
These pillars of fissures and folds,
my bones. With water-soaked wedges

I’ll prise open seams
deepened by the disappearance of my mother
and darkened by the coroner’s report
that found gunpowder in my father’s mouth.
I’ll cleave blocks for lintels and doorstops.
If I unearth only rubble, I’ll pitch for hard core.
This rock grows taller as the soil sinks.
Let the dead bury their dead.

Harold


I don't know if at this point he had met his future wife, but she, like him, was a member of the Plymouth Brethren, an offshoot of the Methodists. A faith that pervaded their lives, mainly to the good, providing structure, love and support; although throughout his career, Harold's ambition challenged the Brethren's line. Hannah always stood by him. They married in 1899:


Harrogate Bedrock, 1899

What I love about you
I have yet to quarry.

Your worn granite face
holds the promise of mica

and buttoned sandstone,
a cladding for our home.

As limestone is local diamond,
your bones must glitter.

The magnesia found here
springs a brilliant cure

the rich flock to taste.
They wince on its sulphur.

I do not wish to drink,
just to mix with mortar.

Hannah



Oddly for those times, they only had one child, a son, John. In their way, they doted on him:


A Very Hearty Welcome, 1900

Son, you have been born into a beautiful world,
and were it not for sin and its awful effects
you might desire no better existence.

You may be earth-born but you belong to heaven
and your heavenly Father has made it possible for you
to reach his home unharmed by sin. I pray
the shield of Christ’s atonement be thrown
around your tender years
and from a consecrated childhood, you grow
into a good and useful manhood.

Goodness is true greatness. Make haste,
my boy; grow tall, strong and good,
then your father will buy you a wheelbarrow
for you to lead the righteous.

Harold


I've already referred to Harold's ambition. This poem is my take (from the perspective of Hannah) on a job he undertook for Harrogate Corporation that so infuriated local people a protest song was written and printed in the paper a week or so after the event:


Suffrage, 1910

My heart sank like a badly baked curd tart
when Mr Baxter of Knapping Mount phoned.

All ready for tomorrow, Kibby?
Two men to each tree and a six o’clock start.

We all heard the voice hammer down the wire.
He who invented the knapping-motion-stone-breaker

met little resistance to his desires.
Harold’s sweat speckled resin-bright on his forehead.

One job closer to the steam wagon to haul
his stone and sand through town.

Our John, jittery with the peculiarity
of work talk at five o’clock on a Sunday,

choked on his oatcakes and eggs as I told him,
for once, he would not be helping his father,

would have no hand in felling the candled chestnuts,
flat as the pleats in a bodice, down the new Kings Road.

Hannah


With the first world war, John was pulled out of school to work for the family firm, in the place of the men who'd gone to fight. This loss of education was to affect him for the rest of his life:


The Boss’s Son, 1919

I carted bricks with Tom Spence from the works
to building sites before school,
walked when the cart was loaded, rode it empty.
In winter he gave me his overcoat to curl inside.

The mason, Jock Kitchen, had Betty
his pet sparrow perched on the stone he dressed.
Jock could prise more shards off with his clog
than others could with their chisels.

When it was cold, Boxer Williams warmed gelignite
in a frying pan, the detonator tucked in his pocket.
He and Fred Shinger drilled holes in solid rock
when we laid a sewer down Follifoot High Street.

For the war’s last year, I was one of the 8th Hussars.
The junior in an eight-man bicycle-mounted
machine-gun unit, I carried half the ammo.
Bullets swinging no further than Norwich.

Back home, we had a Scott — open-framed, water-cooled,
twin two-stroke. Well-tuned, it took corners, nimble
as a bumble bee, deserving no rider but me.
Then I knew: these men were my employees.

John


The story continues with John's marriage, against his parent's wishes; Harold's death, and John's less than successful managing of the business; the social change in the 50s and 60s in the role of women and the church; the grip of the work ethic in the 70s and 80s; and the diminishing power of the family over its fourth generation.

While I know some do not see it as a celebration and tribute to my Dad's family. That is my intention. I haven't pulled all the family skeletons out of the closet. I'm perhaps not brave enough to confront them all, but I hope I have told this arm of the story with an emotional truth and integrity that honours the institution of family. After all, we each stand at different positions to every event.