Largo by Paul Bentley (Smith/Doorstop, 2011)
Reviewed by Robin Vaughan-Williams
As I began reading ‘The Two Magicians’, the long poem that constitutes the bulk of Paul Bentley’s Largo, it brought to mind David Peace’s novel GB84 and Jon dos Passos’s trilogy USA, both of which employ a multi-textured approach to portraying a specific historical juncture. It turns out (from the notes on the Smith/Doorstop website) that Bentley was reading GB84 when he started writing the poem, which like the novel is set during the time of the 1984 UK miners strike.
Peace and dos Passos both employed a mix of reportage, stream of consciousness, and narrative prose about the lives of interconnected characters to explore crossovers between experienced and represented history. Bentley also uses three types of text, this time to plunge us into the world of a boy growing up in a Rotherham mining community during the strike years, but gives the text-types established by Peace and dos Passos a twist. Instead of reportage, each part of the poem (except the last) begins with a ‘field guide description’ of a particular animal. These are followed by verse sections and excited, first-hand accounts of run-ins between miners and police. These alternating textures generate a diurnal rhythm, punctuated by leisurely moments of learning and irruptions of action, farce, and current affairs.
The field descriptions gives us the objective, detached perspective of reportage, but one that is so detached that it doesn’t seem to have any narrative relevance. What it does do, however, is to set an inquisitive, natural history tone, which is easily projected onto the young working-class protagonist.
The animals mentioned in these descriptions are all named in Latin, which brings an element of obscurity to the poem and forced inter-textuality, as most readers will be driven to reach for a reference book, or most likely a search engine, for a translation. This had me wondering if I really needed to know what the animals were; if I couldn’t just go by the descriptions and feel their presence in the verse sections. But each verse section references the animal from the preceding field description, and while this creates connections between our academic and practical experiences of animals, it also sets up a game of ‘spot the duck’, which is much easier to play (cheating perhaps) if you know that what you’re looking for is a duck.
Maybe, however, that’s just a temptation. We have the option to cheat or not to cheat. If ‘Anas platyrhynchos‘ doesn’t tell you much, ‘HAUNT. Fresh water, marshes, estuaries and sometimes the shore’ surely will, while leaving enough mystery to suggest a mythic, potentially monstrous presence. Only those who resist temptation will be rewarded with the subsequent deflation:
A duck, puddling in a peel,
trying to take off.
The fish under the surface, watching.
Our offerings of bread floating.
Grandad in a pickle.
A peel of hollow laughter. It’s trying to take off.
The field descriptions also draw attention to nature as an important theme in the poem. We have boys roaming the woods and fields, fishing and poaching, and men sneaking through farmyards to get past police lines. Specifically, this is about working class proximity to nature. Terms like ‘working class’, ‘industry’, and ‘city’ tend to form a snug series that excludes and is opposed to ‘nature’. But for me the treatment of nature in the poem recalled the working-class relationship to nature in the days of the industrial revolution, when the industrial working class had not yet severed its ties with the villages and the land; many workers were not entirely dependent on wage labour, as they were often able to grow their own produce or return to their families if necessary.
‘The Two Magicians’ describes a community where those ties were perhaps never as fully severed as the historical narrative would have us believe. Many working class communities are based in towns and villages, like Rotherham, where woodland, fields, and waterways are never far away. The nature we get isn’t a romantic, bourgeois countryside. Yes, it is a playground, but it’s also a resource and a refuge, crossed by motorways, a place to turn to in times of troubles. And, to return to the nod at working-class erudition in the field descriptions, a source of development: ‘Will nature make a man of me yet?’.
Evasion is a recurrent theme, and is one possible way that nature serves as a source of learning. There are parallels between scenes of boys evading rangers in the woods and strikers evading police, which suggest that evasion is something learnt in childhood and a necessary skill for working-class survival. In one stanza, where the boy and his grandad are stopped by police, one can feel the force of the act of interpellation (in the Althusserian sense) as they are identified by the authorities as potentially evasive subjects. If even his grandfather is suspect, then this is a lifelong condition. This is reinforced by just enough ambiguity over the purpose of the characters’ trip. Re-reading, I’m sure they’re innocent, but somehow as a reader I was left with enough doubt to feel the police suspicions myself:
The police waiting round a corner
near the disused airfield. Acid House
in the distance. In the mirror
another car stopped. Grandad’s torch-lit face.
Daz’s We’re going fishing. Grandad’s Let’s go
to that rave! As they let us go
they’re searching these palefaces in the mirror,
their car pulled over in our place.
Grandad’s response brings out the everyday nature of the episode. Evasion is so ordinary, it’s a joke. Evasion is a game: ‘It was cat and mouse‘. The first-hand passages of run-ins between strikers and police are full of humour, bringing a slapstick quality that is usually lacking from reportage accounts of similar events:
The lads got hold of one of the cricket sight screens. They turned one round and charged the bobbies with it. All the bobbies were clapping them till they got close, then they counter-charged. The lads ran up on the tip again, round and away. It was like medieval warfare.