Saturday, 2 January 2010

A Picture: A poem and some notes

Picture of my Parents with the First Television

A Picture of My Parent with Their First Television

I see them before the television, the proud owners
of a wooden case in which the four-o-five
presents its milky versions of success
with the last official faces of a time
that was always more dead than alive,
when Hanratty cleaned the windows and a crime
was solved by men with briefcases and bowlers,
when gentlemen made jokes in evening dress.

They fought their way to this, to Lady Barnett,
to Bernard Braden and John Freeman, Kathie Kay
and Alan Breeze, to all those names of power
that solved nothing but could somehow fill
the hours before they slipped away
to private lives that grew more private still,
past old reliable faces by which they set
their clocks precisely to the latest hour.

Some blurred depth in their eyes won't come to rest:
perhaps they're trapped in what they bought,
in all their trappings, in the slim white frame
of the square photograph they sent back home
to show the television. Now they're caught
and solemn. Slowly they become
the stillness by which they are both possessed.
They're listening intently for a name

that once had power, on lips that formed the sound
in darkened flats, in beds in which they slept
and touched each other. Some act of violence
has pitched them here before the screen.
The actors know their speeches, are adept
at pulling faces, know when to go. They've been
elsewhere and are there still, on neutral ground,
of which this patch of grey is evidence.


Verse 1
That was indeed our first television, in a terraced house in Colindale, London. The television picture was then comprised of 405 lines (four-o-five). Some years after this photo was taken (I think I myself took it, under my mother's instructions, the low angle seems about right) the screen was upgraded to 625 lines when BBC2 came along and the picture was suddenly much sharper. James Hanratty was found guilty of the A6 murders and hanged. Later evidence proved him innocent. He had been my piano teacher's window cleaner, I learned. There was a TV series called Murder Bag, that later became, No Hiding Place, starring Raymond Francis that my parents, particularly my mother, were addicted to. The policeman there wore a bowler. Evening dress was often worn on television for entertainment.

Verse 2
For Lady Isobel Barnett, Bernard Braden, John Freeman, Kathie Kay and Alan Breeze, see links as provided by the wondrous Wiki, that does have its uses. They were names of power in various senses: a name of power is something you conjure spirits by; they were well-known so their names were memorable and therefore powerful; they exerted a power over my parents; television is run on electric power. (Is that enough reasons? ) And, of course, the shows on which they appeared were at regular times. You could set the clock by them. As to private lives, everyone's life is private, but the first sense of privacy you ever get is the privacy within which your parents lie cocooned.

Verse 3
More punning on 'trappings' of course. Puns and poems are close allied. The photograph is not exactly square, though I remembered it as such. There is, I think, a certain ceremonial solemnity about the way my parents pose. All photographs have this solemnity in one way (think of Barthes' idea of photographs asmemento mori), but this, I feel, is a special solemnity, appropriate to the ceremony of coming through. The television meant we had come through. That's why we had several copies of the photo. They were sent to friends back in Hungary as reassurance.

Verse 4
Some act of violence
. Literally the Revolution of 1956, but I knew of the earlier violence of concentration camp and labour camp. And, on quite another level, I had the haunting feeling - one I still have - that life pitches us up in places, and that nowhere more is this evident than in photographs. The pitched moment. Who are the actors here? Those on television or the figures in front of the television? That is the question that really lies at the core of the poem.


The poem was written over twenty years ago and appeared in Bridge Passages (1988) so it is easier to talk about it now than it would have been then, and, in any case, I happen to have uploaded the photograph. It was one of a set of poems for which I devised a rhyme scheme: ABCDBDAC. I have no idea now why it was specifically that, except that I must have thought / felt, that the eye and ear would move into the first four lines thinking nothing was going to join up, but then it would all join up in a slightly unexpected way, nothing too symmetrical. A bit like life, in fact.

The set, titled 'Appropriations', numbered seven poems, all in the same form, though I suspect there were more than seven originally. They were about early memories of England: the language, the taste of salt by the sea at our first place of landing (Westgate-on-Sea), about the bodies of adults in the out-of-season boarding house where we were put up, especially when they tried to seduce each other; two poems about two early teachers; one about acclimatising to the seaside and being chased by a dog; and the one that is above to end with, once we were in London.

The poem was written a long time ago but the photograph shows a scene about thirty years before the poem. The set was called 'Appropriations' because the two teachers I wrote about were real enough and I was conscious of appropriating their lives - or that part of their lives that overlapped with mine - to my own purpose of shaping, which, no doubt, would have been misshaping as far as they were concerned.

I suspect one reason I am not a novelist is because of my uneasiness about appropriating others too readily.


James said...

George - (and it was a huge disappointment to me) - later evidence confirmed Hanratty's guilt. DNA. Paul Foot et al, for all the effort and the honour, got it wrong. The surviving victim of the attack who ID'd him in the first place was the one vindicated. Doesn't make it right to hang him, though, and there were other circs that should have at least earned him a reprieve from that at the time.

(I used to live just down the road from where it happened, and have cycled past the scene countless times)

The Plump said...

I would argue that point on Hanratty's guilt with you James. The DNA evidence is highly controversial and the positive test is almost certainly down to cross contamination.

I helped an old friend and former colleague research a book he wrote (never published sadly) on the case some years back, read much of the evidence and the trial transcripts and I have met and interviewed Hanratty's brother.

There is overwhelming evidence that Hanratty was in Rhyl at the time of the murder. And George, the evidence was available at the time of the trial and appeal. The Judge in the case appeared visibly shocked at the guilty verdict. The appeal was conducted on the basis of a misdirection (there was none) rather than the collaborated identification that placed Hanratty in Rhyl.

There is much more besides, pointing so clearly to his innocence that there has to be huge doubt about the DNA test.

James is right that the surviving victim has stood by her identification evidence and I can understand why. There is a lot of evidence that the identification was flawed, but who could live with that? It isn't a question of her vindication, I have always seen her as a double victim - left paralysed as the result of an appalling crime and then as a central figure in a miscarriage of justice that led to the death of an innocent man. Heart-rending.

George S said...

I had no idea you had worked on the Hanratty case, Plump.

How incontrovertible is DNA evidence then, I wonder?

Presumably identification depends on the chances of contamination, but how do they assess the chances?

The Plump said...

I worked on it around 20 years ago to help out my old friend Denis, whose death I blogged on this summer. I helped polish up the manuscript after the book had narrowly missed being accepted by John Murray and I did some additional work on it. The manuscript is still in my loft, now out of date. In the end Denis lost heart after further near misses and gave up the attempt to revise and publish.

I am not a scientist, but DNA testing is not flawless. The sample used in the Hanratty case had been found in recent years after it had been randomly stored with other items, including ones that would have contained Hanraty's DNA, that could have contaminated the sample. Proper storage and care of samples is essential to accuracy.

This case follows the pattern of many miscarriages of justice in capital cases in that the system does not like to admit mistakes, and is even more reluctant to allow malpractice to come to light. The DNA test was a suspiciously neat way of killing off the campaign and was followed by an appalling TV documentary that tried to assert Hanratty's guilt.

There had been a previous documentary about his innocence that was deeply disappointing, repeating a number of errors in Paul Foot's account and trying to prove the guilt of the first suspect who Denis (and I agree with him) believed was innocent as well, despite a subsequent confession, made and retracted several times. He had mental health problems and we thought that talking about him was a huge distraction from the evidence that absolved Hanratty and, of course, trying to clear one person's name by asserting the guilt of another innocent person was a disaster.