Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Where the hell is Quinzi Oniack?

A couple of weeks ago I had cause to visit London. I lived there for two stretches in the seventies. On the first occasion, I stayed in Stamford Hill and worked in Walthamstow. For all I saw of central London during the week, I may as well have been living in Motherwell. Nothing wrong, of course, with living in Motherwell - except it is not famed for the range of broadening experiences young men and women dream are on offer in the metropolis. There were a couple of these, I recall; but, living where I did, I rarely got near the London that sparks the imagination so much - the one that was mapped out so clearly by Dickens and Conan Doyle and recently revisited by such writers as the Peters Ackroyd and Carey.

My friend, the painter Jim Latter, always brings me closer to my imaginative London. Jim grew up in south London among the "diamond geezers" and recalls, among much else, how strangely quiet the streets were on the night of the Great Train Robbery. On this recent visit, Jim took me to his local, the Cockpit, the last recorded cock-fighting pub in London. Its landlord, Dave, had a generous face that would have been at home in The Canterbury Tales and a gold ring like a stack of tea plates. He was in good spirits. "That's what I like about my pub; I got the likes of you - and over there, the future Lord Mayor of London."

Later from the roof of the Thames-side apartment Jim shares with his wife, the novelist Michele Roberts, I felt a stab of exhilaration at seeing again the floodlit dome of St Paul's and, across the river, the pale circumference of the Globe and the brick edifice of the new Tate, advertising its millennial show. Directly below us lay a small cove where Jim told me the Romans landed before marching up Garlick Hill and pitching camp. Jim collects broken clay pipes from the river's edge there, the way we collect shells at Carsethorne.

Nodding towards the Globe, I told Jim that last year my wife had taken me on my first Stratford theatre trip; and that what I had found mesmerising was to discover something of Shakespeare there: part of a family, a class, a community - Shakespeare, who for most of us is more of a force of nature than a real historical presence. It was no surprise, however, to find the Brontes on the moors at Haworth, another place I revisited after a long absence last year. I found the selfsame bookmark my mother had bought for me almost 40 years previously, which seemed emblematic of the Brontes' failure to escape their circumscribed habitat. Scripted on it, the words of Emily Bronte concerning friendship and love: "The holly is dark while the rose bush blooms/but which will bloom more constantly?"

Lyrics had been top of the agenda before I met Jim at the Cockpit. As Michele's guest, I had attended the annual Forward Poetry Awards, arriving amid a preen of poets just after the announcement that Jo Shapcott had won the main prize. Roddy Lumsden, Scottish poet in exile, gave me the news. He was enjoying causing a furore, courtesy of a book of essays and poems entitled The Message: crossing the tracks between poetry and pop. Press response had meant that hoary old chestnuts were once again knocked together: Dylan or Keats? Keats or Dylan? There is a danger of tone for poets writing about pop lyrics; how to avoid sounding arrogant or envious; dismissive or too earnest.

Some years ago when the New Generation poetry promotion was in full swing, I took part in a TV discussion as to whether poetry was the new rock'n'roll. My problem was that I can remember when rock'n'roll was touted as the new poetry - not only Dylan, whose lyrics Roddy and I chummily exchanged; but also Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dory Previn: "Loved I two men equally well/each as different as heaven and hell./One was a poet, one drove a truck,/one would make love, the other would fuck."

Too obviously, perhaps, that verse trails its rhyme. One lyric that doesn't comes from the age of apparent innocence: "Let's take a boat to Bermuda/let's take a plane to St Paul/let's grab a kayak/to Quinzi Oniack/ let's get away from it all." Does the place exist? I have no idea. And if it doesn't, I applaud the lyricist's chutzpah even more. He is, of course, Sammy Kahn, Sinatra's favourite lyricist, who also penned "Lovers love London by night . . ." And not only London! Before we're enveloped by sporting hysteria, I'd like to say that, Twickenham and Wembley apart, I have been reminded again what a bloody marvellous country England can be.

This article first appeared in the 01 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - David Ramsbotham