Thursday, 13 May 2010

Answers to Correspondents: King Priam and Troy

The possible ruins of Troy

One of my poems, 'Preston North End' (from An English Apocalypse) has been included in various anthologies for the usual anthology reasons. Not because of its qualities as a poem but because it illustrates an interesting social situation, in this case of the immigrant to Britain. Now a Norwegian student has written to me to ask for clarification as to why, at the end of a poem about football, King Priam and Troy turn up, and whether, if that is the case, I am a Greek.

Such a nice question. Are we immigrants and refugees Greeks in Troy! Sometimes, if rarely, a question makes me think at length and then I put the answer up here too, if only because the answer articulates something I myself hadn't thought through, and also because a blog such as this is partly me talking to others and partly me talking to myself while looking as though I was talking to someone else. First the poem, then the answer:

Preston North End

Tottenham Hotspur versus Preston North End.
Finney’s last season: my first. And my dad
with me. How surprisingly well we blend

with these others. Then the English had
the advantage, but today we feel
their fury, sadness and pity. There were some bad

years in between, a lot of down-at-heel
meandering. For me though, the deep blue
of Preston was ravishment of a more genteel,

poetic kind. They were thrashed five-one, it’s true,
and Finney was crocked by Mackay. Preston went down,
hardly to rise again. But something got through

about Finney the plumber, Lancashire, the Crown,
and those new days a-coming. The crowd dissolves,
but we are of the crowd, heading into town

under sodium street lights. This year Wolves
will win the title. Then Burnley. I will see
Charlton, Law and George Best. The world revolves

around them and those voices on TV
reading the results. I’m being bedded in -
to what kind of soil remains a mystery,

but I sense it in my marrow like a thin
drift of salt blown off the strand. I am
an Englishman, wanting England to win.

I pass the Tebbitt test. I am Alan Lamb,
Greg Rusedski, Viv Anderson, the boy
from the corner shop, Solskjaer and Jaap Stam.

I feel no sense of distance when the tannoy
plays Jerusalem, Rule Britannia or the National Anthem.
I know King Priam. I have lived in Troy.

And now the answer, which is still partial, an answer I myself am seeking.

I will give you a long answer because it is an interesting question and it helps me to think about it myself. I hope the answer is not confusing.

The poem 'Preston North End' is part of a 26 poem series with the general title of 'An English Apocalypse', five sections of five poems each in the same terza rima form, with the twenty-sixth being an introduction. In the last series of five there are in fact five apocalypses in which England is destroyed. I should make it very clear that I don't want England destroyed: in fact quite the opposite. I, as an immigrant, have an immigrant's love for the country that accepted me when I needed acceptance. Often when one loves things one fears for their destruction: so, in the series as a whole, there is an apprehension of destruction, sometimes in comic terms. In the course of the twenty-six poems I hope a picture of England emerges in the time I know it, with a particular accent on the seventies and eighties, when I myself became an adult.

'Preston North End' comes from the fourth section titled 'Entertainments', in which there are poems about drinking, wrestling, television, and a hen-night (that's to say a women's night out) at a strip-club with a male stripper. 'Preston North End' is the last of these and concerns not my first football match - that was in Budapest when I was six or seven years old - just my first in England. The match is as I describe it in the poem - those are the real names of footballers then, and later, as time passes.

I didn't imagine myself a Greek in Troy, just a refugee from a smaller place, a first generation Trojan. As you know, Troy falls and is destroyed by the Greeks. At the end of the poem England is equated with Troy, and King Priam, the tragic king of Troy - who dies when the city is conquered by the Greeks - with whatever sense of identity the place seemed to have. The speaker is speaking after all that has happened. Troy has fallen and King Priam is dead.

It is only at the end of the poem that the speaker realises what a strange, great, tragic place he has lived in and known. When I was a child most of the world map was coloured red and the rump of the British Empire still existed as the British Commonwealth. England (by which I as a child, and everyone else in Europe, meant the whole United Kingdom, including Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) was one of the great powers. Hungary was far from that. 'England' of course was shrinking by the time we arrived in 1956 but I think it shrank dramatically in the seventies when the last vestiges of its traditional power base disintegrated (the coup-de-grace was delivered by Margaret Thatcher). By the time I was writing the poem in 2000, the millennium year, the United Kingdom had started to devolve, so England really was becoming the remnant of Empire. I was writing the poem in Ireland, after an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, a fuel blockade, bad floods and a dramatic increase in the suicide rate of young men. My three month residency Ireland, where England is hated, was the trigger. I had intended to write novel about wrestling. That didn't happen. The sequence of poems happened instead.

The poem is not nostalgic for the days of Empire - in fact nostalgia is treated as comedy in the whole sequence, including in 'Preston North End' - but it can't help but be aware that a huge monument is decomposing and collapsing.

So there you are, in the simplest and crudest term, Troy is England, King Priam is the tragic king of the tragic defeated city. I am not a Greek but a foreign Trojan living in the great city knowing it is moving towards its end. I am a survivor, surveying the ruins of Troy .

I now remember that one of the other triggers for the poem was a poem of Jo Shapcott's titled 'Motherland' in which she speaks of feeling a sense of distance whenever she thinks of England (see the sense of distance referred to in the last verse). I didn't think it was distance I felt. I don't and never have felt complicit in the crimes of colonialism. I can't help that - I simply don't. Hungary has been both the coloniser and the colonised. I just saw a vast edifice collapsing. It was the edifice I had come to. I heard the noise of collapse and aching and I responded as might a humane visitor from another planet whose history was quite unaffected by England. You will see that all the sportsmen mentioned near the end of the poem are of foreign origin.

Who knows the crimes of Troy? How did Troy treat its slaves, satellites and agencies or reward its generals, merchants and leaders? Troy collapsed, King Priam was dead. It's still a good story. And there is still an ache to the story of Troy, which is just one great city among all the great cities of history.

Perhaps I am the true Martian - not Craig Raine or Christopher Reid - sending his postcard home. On the other hand there are people who see any visitor as a Trojan Horse. It's all Greek to them.

The view from the possible Troy. Both images via)

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