When he read my recent review on Fitzgerald’s Tender is the night, John Mills (photo below) said he would like to write a review piece himself. As one thing led to another, the FRIDAY NIGHT (re)VIEWERS. We open today a new category on this website, where my book loving friends will publish reviews about their favourite, or even less favourite books.
Welcome our group of people equally mad passionate about books!
From the title and the cover, showing the silhouettes of women, we know we are dealing with a collection of poems about the pioneers of women’s struggle to escape from the shadows.#
But first I must confess that Helen Mort and I have been friends for years. When we first met I think we spoke about poetry first then running and climbing. I had climbed in my youth but gave it up for the far more sensible sport of caving. Sport forms as much of our vocabulary as poetry does so it was with a certain trepidation, I approached the task of reviewing her book.
Don’t mess with the northerner
Helen is unquenchably northern, as the clipped vowels of her Chesterfield accent show. And I don’t mean this in the professional northerner sense of Geoffrey Boycott and the like. I’m thinking more the of people formed by the Peak district’s Millstone grit, the miners’ strike, the battle of Orgreave and the dying days of Thatcher’s divisive reign. She is sensitive, but firm in her championship of those who are unfairly treated. Helen knows from personal experience what it is like to be patronised. You can only imagine her fury at this comment made to her at Cambridge,
“…..my boyfriend hauls me up again,
pulling at my hand and smiling,
telling me how far I’ve come.”
I know her as an extraordinarily good runner, a climber of great scope and versatility and no mean mountaineer. So, it is no surprise that athleticism and a feeling for the down trodden should form, if not the backbone of her work, then at least a considerable number of vertebrae.
A champion of the underdog
Tom Hulatt’s Mile shows her affinity for the northerner, the runner and the underdog. Tom Hulatt has been airbrushed from history. Google Roger Bannister’s sub four-minute mile. You’ll find all manner of details about the track, the last-minute decision to go for it, the word spreading through the pubs, the crowds thronging the track. But you will struggle to find much about the third man, Derbyshire miner, Tom Hulatt.
A northern working-class runner was not what the post war press wanted. What they wanted was the Oxbridge students; young, rich, glamorous, the bright young things who would be the peacetime new order of the brave new world. The south-east was regaining its hold. Bannister decided to attempt sub 4 half an hour before the race was to be run. Even Bannister’s words to Chris Brasher and Chris Chattaway, “Right, we’ll go for it, we all know what we have to do” suited the drama of the day and could have been spoken by a character at any one of Agatha Christie’s fictional house parties.
A personal affinity with Hulatt
I have always felt a strong affinity for Hulatt. As a senior athlete, I finished fourth in my best race and that has always rankled. So for Hulatt to be outshone by Brasher, who dropped out after two laps, must have been a wound that festered throughout his life. As a junior I ran in the county championship mile against two public school boys. They were two years my senior and junior internationals. They beat me by about 15 seconds and afterwards I learned the true meaning of being patronised. Apparently it was their school running kit and spikes, compared to my tee shirt and pumps, that made the difference.
An athletic record set straight
Helen Mort sets Hulatt’s athletic record straight and I am glad. Tom Hulatt is mentioned twice before the poem begins and Bannister and Brasher lose their first names and Chattaway’s fate is that of Hulatt’s, he is ignored.
You are left wondering what the reaction would have been if Hulatt had used two pacemakers when their use was banned at the time. The poem uses running as a metaphor for Hulatt’s life, each verse a lap of the four-lap race and each verse an episode in Hulatt’s life and its whole a biting criticism of the Hooray Henry brigade that looked down on the working man without knowing what they were looking at.
Recognition for Tom Hullat half a century later
With no spectators to roar him on, the earth becomes his “audience” as he resumes his life as a collier. “He runs out of 1954,” and goes north to all the unpleasant jobs that keep the country going. He is always there pricking the conscience of the establishment like Kim Philby, the other Third Man elusive, canny, resourceful and always there,
“through centuries of rain/and bad ideas, through lifetimes of good luck………He ran like weather. He ran like time,”
As she says, “you can try and catch him, but there is no line.”
Bannister had his line drawn in 1954 and his fame began and ended there but the northern working-class man’s spirit is immeasurable.
After a life untroubled by fame Tom died early aged 59. But on the 50th anniversary of the first four-minute mile a one mile stretch of the Five Pits Trail, marked by two engraved stones, was called the Tom Hulatt Mile. It might have taken more than half a century but, thanks to that and Helen Mort’s poem, Hulatt’s contribution to one of the 20th century’s greatest sporting achievements is finally gaining the recognition it deserves.
Mocking the ban on women runners
What will Happen mocks the ban by men on women running the marathon. The title points out the futility of man’s stupidity in trying, like some later day Canute, to stop the inevitable. She makes the ironic suggestion that should she attempt such an athletic enterprise her ”uterus will fall out,” and that she, “should be stowed/away from sunlight, saved from rain,” sweet precious little thing that she is.
This poem is an eloquent testimony of Katherine Switzer. She managed to ward off the attentions of the steward trying to rip her number off and complete the 1967 Boston marathon. As we now know, she still had her uterus intact, and changed the course of women’s sport. It still took five more years before women were accepted officially as competitors for the Boston marathon.
The construction of the poem warrants mention. Its seven couplets get progressively shorter until the last three, all one sentence. It shows the breathlessness of the marathon, the escape from the repressive males, the steward, and the race towards equality. It is pleasing to note that prize money at Boston and London is the same for men and women. Even so we are, in so many ways, “waiting/for the world to catch up.”
“Run your own race”
It is impossible to read these two poems without hearing the echo of their writer. Helen, like Hulatt, visits Oxbridge and is patronised by her boyfriend. Hulatt is told by Bannister dismissively to, “run your own race.” Both retreat to the comfort of the north. Helen runs the London marathon and with the same steely resolve of Switzer fighting off the steward Helen fights fatigue, cramps and pain to finish under three hours.
“The Grepon has disappeared. Of course, there are still some rocks standing there but as a climb it no longer exists. Now that it has been done by two women alone, no self-respecting man can undertake it.”
This quote from Etienne Buhl forms the prelude to, An Easy Day for a Lady.
Helen describes the women climbers as the
“…..magicians of the Alps
we make the routes we follow disappear.”
This is not just the fact that the routes are no longer considered worth doing by men that they are unclassified, it is saying at a lot more. Man has bludgeoned, hacked, ice-picked his way up mountains whereas women’s ascent is more caring; what men destroy, women restore. The treatment of the mountain becomes a metaphor for the differences between the sexes.
“…..Where you made ways
we will unmake:
give back the silence
at the dawn of things.”
Man does not look back on his destruction but takes pride in conquering the obstacles the, “undone glaciers,” and the forest, “curls into a fist.” I am reminded, that prior to the First World War, the then Lord Stafford shot the last kite in Staffordshire and great praise was heaped upon his shoulders, not opprobrium. It has taken over a century before a few breeding pairs returned to the county. Man’s relationship with the earth is summed up perfectly in the lines
“Beneath your feet,
retracts its hand.”
Writing from the head, writing from the heart
There is a certain honesty and truth that underpins Helen Mort’s writing. This expresses itself strongly in the poems about Jemima Morrell who, in 1863, took on a remarkable tour of the Alps.
These poems don’t merely possess the accuracy of the history book but the honesty and understanding of having done the tour herself, when in 2013 she was invited to re-enact Morrell’s journey. Helen Mort is no bit part poet. Whilst she is writing from the head she is writing from the heart and it is this combination of passion and precision that makes her work both accessible and beguiling.
Many of the poems in this collection achieve their effect with short, sparse lines stabbing at the heart of their subject. The precision of the language reflects the precision of the climber. Each word is chosen with the same care. The selection of a handhold, rhythm and the subtlety of the vocabulary create the impression of ease as poem and climber move forward with the grace of a great athlete.
Helen Mort leads you upwards like the climber
Many of the poems are written in deceptively simple couplets creating an electron ladder feeling. Helen leads the reader upwards and like the climber. We are not sure of our path or where our journey is taking us, but the destination is always worth it.