Arte Marte Vigore
With art, with might, with vigour? The school motto! But might seemed to rule disproportionally in my school. It was founded in about 1917, I believe, and the original headmaster was still in command when I attended, and ruled with a rod of iron despite any feeble attempt by Staffordshire Education Committee to intervene.
Art was in the hands of a Mr. Gerald Legge, whose grey wavy hair appeared to have had the benefit of some crimping device. He seems to have taken an instant dislike to me and had taken to calling me Satan when reading the attendance register; so it was Smith - yes Sir, Southam - yes Sir, Satan - a mumbled yes, Stinchcombe.
I remember the day it had been announced on the radio, headlined in the national daily newspapers, that National Service was to end. This meant that boys like me would no longer be called into the army at 17 for two years of compulsory military experience.
We had a lesson with Mr. Legge that day and he decided that we would each make an item of sculpture in paper. So I made a model of Lord Kitchener, in World War 1 pose, pronouncing that Your Country Needs You. I thought it was appropriate, but the Arts Master was furious. I think that was the beginning of the Satan jibe.
I have always been a quick worker and I'd often finish my painting assignment well before the other class members and would sit looking at it. He'd ask why I wasn't working, I'd say finished, Sir! and he'd ask if I was satisfied with it, I'd say Yes, and he'd take it in his hands and tear it up, folding and tearing again and again.
It's been nice to have a few painting and drawings used to illustrate magazines and poetry collection covers, to have a small display in my local art gallery, to have my paintings featured on DVD and video, and I suppose I should have signed them Satan, but I've always thought G. Stevens
I wonder what he would have thought if he'd known that I once had a lady poet kindly volunteer to pose naked for me (if I provided a suitably heated room) and that was without the need to crimp my hair.
Midlands Home Service
Some of us still called it the Wireless in those days and although we most often listened to Radio Luxembourg, with its pop star presentations, daytime choice was was limited to the Third Programme (now Radio Three) the Light Programme (Radio Two) and the Home Service, which also had Midland Region programmes.
One day in the 1970's I was half- listening to the last mentioned station when the speaker said ...such well-known Midlands' poets Geoff Stevens. It was my first and last mention on mainline B.B.C. radio to date, and totally undeserved.
I'd read my work once in public. I'd written a verse in local dialect about a landing on the moon on the day it was announced to the world that the Americans had done just that. The same evening I attended a Black Country Society event at a local pub and had my poem read by Dr. John Fletcher. I managed to read my work myself at a few more local events before that surprising radio announcement mentioned above came about.
It was thanks to Jim William Jones, who made the broadcast, and was also M/C at the Dudley Poetry Centre. This was a monthly get-together at Bill Caddel's New Inns public house in Roseville, Coseley, an old-fashioned ale house known for its Holden's draught beer and its pigeon fanciers. The small original building had a concert room extension, which was packed on poetry nights with enthusiasts and regular bar loungers, pint glasses in hand, listening to poetry of all standards, a bit of local flavour, and some music, which was provided in the main by resident folk group Giggity (named after a brook in nearby Wombourne) who specalised in songs about The Black Country. Jim William Jones was an accomplished poet in standard English and a giant of dialect verse, but most of all he was a nice bloke. First nighters, knees knocking, voice lost or at least croaking, were introduced by Jim as if they were a star turn doing him a big favour by coming along. He was a gentleman, encouraged many, and provided a fine example of how a poetry evening should be presented.
Come Into The Parlour
It was another of my schoolteachers that said that The Midlands had no songs of its own if you exclude If you're Irish, come into the parlour. Of course that is entirely wrong. Even the Oxford Book of Folk Songs included Wedgebury Cocking, though it sanitised it a little for a more gentile readership.
My school music teacher knew my musical limitations, and I had been, in succesive lessons, an alto, a treble, a base, a tenor and a treble again? But since rock & roll had burst onto the scene hadn't I wished that I too had the nerve to sing in public?
I did sing a self-penned song once at a poetry event which had four performers and one person in the audience, but it was an act of frustration and despair rather than of joy.
Last year I toured part of Ireland with Geraldine, a few open mic poetry event dates taken from the internet and secured in my notebook to give me a chance perhaps to read my poems in the Emerald Isle. It was not to be, all the events either cancelled or long forgotten about.
But on visiting Galway, we were drawn to a very small house in a side street that had been the home of Nora Barnacle, who was to become the wife of the famous James Joyce. The curator sat at a table talking to a small group of American visitors and we were drawn into the conversation. I was asked if I came from the Black Country, which astounded me as Black Country people are usually asked if they come from Birmingham - which is a great insult to them! It was revealed in the conversation that I was a poet and I was asked to read some of my work, but my poems were in the car on a car park two miles away, and so it was suggested that perhaps a song in Black Country dialect would be forthcoming. Reluctantly, with a nudge from Geraldine, I launched to my surprise into a quite passable rendition of Wife For Sale - Here's to give notice that Bandy-legged Lett will sell his wife Sally for all he can get etc etc. And I even got a round of applause from curator and yanks.
Play it Again
One late, dark and wet evening, I was stting at home and the phone rang. This is Sam Cucchiara. I'm in London, England, looking for a U.K.Editor for our literary magazine, Slug-Fest. The American drawl continued. I've been told by Lynda Da Silva to look up Geoff Stevens; he's the best poet in England. I assured him that I was indeed Geoff Stevens and he asked if he could catch a bus, now, to West Bromwich.
The upshot of it all was would I meet him at Paddington Station two days hence, and that I did. By some extraordinary perceptual power he knew that I liked pubs and soon guided me to one, where he bought me a beer and treated himself to a pot of tea. Soon after this meeting, I was informed that I was the new U.K.Editor. There followed many messages from Sam over the next few years, by phone but mainly by letter, from France, U.S.A, India, Czechoslovakia etc. Sam was a retitired college professor and enjoyed off-season travel, especially to Prague. The letters were always newsworthy, encouraging, and warm.
But I was only to meet Dr. Sam Cucchiara in person on one more occasion. He rang me to say he was in London again and could I come and see him at the New Atlantic Hotel. I arrived to find that he had booked me a room for two nights, which he insisted on paying for. We dined out that evening, at his suggestion, at an High Street Chinese restaurant that provided all one could eat for £5. We both managed three
heaped plates of oriental delights.
Sam then, haunted by caffeine withdrawal symptoms, retreated for an American coffee at the then new Borders' Bookstore muttering about the dreadful state of the British variation. There was another surprise for me next day, after breakfast, Sam informed me that he'd arranged for me to give a talk and read some of my poetry to American students that resided at the hotel (which doubled as a cultural exchange college).
It was a good job that I always carry a few poems with me. The talk proved adequate and the poems went well. I even received thank-you letters! Sam also recorded the event on his tiny tape-recorder and was to say that he played it back a number of times. He was most upset when part of his hand luggage was stolen at the airport a few months later as it contained his tape-recorder and the tape made at the New Atlantic Hotel. But I would have loved to have seen the thief's reaction when he played it.
What Shall We Do?
Politeness is a virtue, and when one is invited to a function, it should be a necessity. But occasionally politeness interferes with the brief.
Paul Darby was a music teacher and a poet. He was interested in the local area and able to put over its characteristics in song, accompanying himself with guitar or accordion. Holly Lodge Grammar School, which was situated on the border of Smethwick and Oldbury in the West Midlands, decided to hold a Black Country evening, with the pupils putting on little acting sketches that involved historical events in the area. Paul was asked to provide the music and he asked me along to read some dialect verse. The audience consisted of parents and older children, and the headmaster, with his wife and various dignitaries, sat on the front row.
The children's sketches went well, with enthusiastic but polite applause from parents. I got a slightly more than mild response, but Paul's renditions of local ballads didn't. So he asked the audience to join in a chorus or too.
The headmaster and wife sat straight faced and unmoved and the rest of the audience followed suit. After a new song and a further attempt at participation, Paul announced that he would sing a song that everyone would know and perhaps then they would like to join him in a chorus or two. So he began “What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor”, and still getting no response substituted words of his own, which got progressively more dangerous until he finally got some reaction with "Shave his knackers with a rusty razor"! We never did get invited back.
Performing Bear For The Establishment
Click their fingers and expect us to jump they may, but I only do that which I wish to do. Queuing in one of the rapidly disappearing British Post Offices the other day I was assailed at a distance by a local entrepreneur, the organiser of the Town's Lit Fest, who shouted rhetorically (we'd already made an arrangement that I should be a poet at his event) "Are you going to perform for me?”, to which I answered that I often got asked that question and always said yes. This caused some merriment for an elderly woman and for her middle-aged daughter, who said, "I'd told you that the Post Office wasn't as boring as it used to be, Mother." Then the old lady, looked the 62 year-old me up and down, all six foot of accumulated flesh (15 stone at the last count) and asked, "Are you a stripper?"