Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Train Dialogue

Swoop down to London to meet J at the European Commission, the Commission having kindly commissioned me to write a poem, for the opening of their new headquarters in Smith Square, in fact the old Tory HQ. The visit was to make contact and have a look at the building that is still in preparation. It is, I should say, a hard commission because it has a function: celebration. I have had one go at it which was not thought quite right. It was a sonnet that took as its subject the ruins and rebuilding of Europe after the last war. Formal, ceremonial, but maybe not quite celebratory. I wouldn't take on anything like this unless I actually believed in the project, but it is still hard. I keep thinking some kind of verse is called for, more than a poem, but there must be a poem in there.

From there straight to Shepherd's Bush to record an early poem, 'English Words' for use in the BBC programme, Something Understood. The recording is not at the BBC but at an independent studio in a small street near Shepherd's Bush underground station. I had looked it up before, but once at Shepherd's Bush I discover that, though the street is listed in the gazetteer at the back, it is too small to appear on the actual map. So I ring the studio to ask where it is. It's a busy thoroughfare, a noisy main road, and I can't hear the voice at the other end, so I tell them to hang on while I duck into the next quiet street. 'Where are you?' asks H, my contact. I look up at the street name and realise I am exactly where I'm supposed to be. I walk past the studio which is in a house. H pops out and calls me back. The recording takes only about as long as it takes to read the poem once, then a couple of lines to be patched and it's all over. I finish a cup of coffee they have kindly given me.

I had arranged to meet Jenny, a recent MA student, at Shepherd's Bush at 2pm but am early, so nip into a Kentucky Fried Chicken. This is of course Low Food, not High Food, but an abiding part of me loves Low Food and cheap friendly joints, and this is friendly, entirely Asian. Two bits of chicken with chips does very well, while slurping a Coke. Customers come and go. I read Poetry Review (am in the current issue) and feel comfortable and pleased with the cheap food world. There is a kind of low level democracy about the atmosphere, not exactly nostalgie de la boue, which would be too romantic a notion, nor am I high class enough to be looking down from any height, thank heaven. Jenny Joseph will wear purple when she's old. When I am truly old I will eat chips and KFC.

Jenny takes me to a higher class place altogether where I eat a higher class piece of tiramisu accompanied by a double espresso. We talk jobs and PhD's, then I'm off home.


On the second leg of the train journey I am marking MA scripts but feel exhausted. A group of school, or FE, students are all around me. Right in front of me stands a tall black American girl with a big stud under her lips. She is talking to a tall white American boy, slightly gawky but self-confident. As a matter of fact they both are because they talk at the top of their voices. They could sit down but choose to remain standing. Boy and girl rap - they throw brief hard challenges at each other. It's a kind of hard flirting, mutual machismo. She uses an expression I hadn't heard before: crotch pocket, then changes to middle pocket. I listen now because the language is interesting. It's pretty clear what crotch pocket is, it's also pretty clear it is a kind of challenge, not only to the boy but to anyone in earshot. Sheer bravado. You can practically feel her glowing with it. Her speech, his speech, both, are fast and inventive. The boy queries the expression for a second then brazens up to it. She is clearly enjoying the confrontation. 'I'm hard core,' she declares at one point. I can see that's the idea. Sitting behind her I only catch the odd glimpse of her face. It is not a beautiful or even pretty face, but it has life. She has a keen feminist ear and wants to elicit a sexist comment from the boy so she can round on him. He is wise to this, so she turns her ready-for-offence ire to a third person, not present, only reported. The boy is not fazed but continues grinning and responding. The train has been moving for a long time now and standing up is clearly a kind of dare. Eventually the girl in the seat next to the tall American girl stands up too, a blonde Englsh girl, much quieter, probably a bit embarrassed and it becomes a colloquy, the black girl directing more and more of her conversation at the other girl. Still standing, the boy says, 'I'm going to sit down. But only because I'm bored.' This represents a kind of victory for the tall black girl, and she too sits down, only just in time to get up again for Ely where the train half empties. They too go.

Both boy and girl are clearly intelligent. They both have pride. They get off together with mutual respect. I find I have enjoyed all this and felt like giving a small round of applause after each motormouth sally. Stichomythia, the Greeks would have called it. Crotch pocket is pretty good, I think. A little Shakespearean. 'I pray you, bring your hand to the buttery-bar and let it drink,' say Maria, the maid, in Twelfth Night. I must look up crotch pocket and see if it's established use.


Ario said...

Heavens, it apparently is. Multiple meanings apparently too. Perhaps that explains the boy's pause, he was figuring out which meaning she meant. I'm hoping meaning no. 4 from that list.

George S said...

I'm hoping meaning no. 4 from that list.

I wouldn't bet on that, Ario. From that source it might be No 1.