BEFORE THE RAIN CAME
Our ring road is a forced marriage
of IKEA sky once held together
by medieval beams.
Many times my city has walked through me
and turned to stone in my eyes
when I took a piss on Spon Street.
A pub served mead the old way here,
landlords made way for baristas
boasting fair-trade on tax free plots.
Our city was made by flames,
the phoenix was a welder’s torch,
men like my Da before the rain came.
Our city was a blank canvas
two tones barely mixing,
bleeding separately away from each other.
Many times my brothers walked past me
down Foleshill Road in the rain,
those colours should have ran.
Then Coventry would be grey,
(Reprinted with kind permission)
If you’ve spent enough time on your knees, then you’ll recognise the sound of a city church breathing. The Amazon audiophiles who take issue with the clutter of background noise on Nonsuch’s recording of Gorecki’s Miserere miss the point: sacred music deserves a sacred location and to sanitize it, to remove the inhalation and exhalation of the church doors as they’re sucked in and out by gusts and draughts, the pulse of the traffic, would be to rip it from its soul. Some things are bigger than us. They resist control and, despite our best efforts, they’re dirty around the edges.
The Year I Loved England, a collaboration between Joseph Horgan and Antony Owen, feels like an urban Hymns Ancient & Modern, as the medieval and the modern city converge, stopping in the Blitz along the way. Perhaps Before the Rain Came references Santosh Sivan’s 2007 film, Before the Rains, where love, that untamable, perennial inconvenience will out, regardless of nationalism and sectarianism. The poem exists in tension and uncertainty, as ‘Our ring road is a forced marriage.’ The first person plural creates a sense of community and, as a ring, it points towards perfection, towards eternity. This is quickly undercut by ‘forced marriage.’ Suddenly the ring road’s a halter and the shared values that allow the possibility of an ‘us’ fragment. After all, IKEA draws a larger Sunday congregation to its ring road cathedral than the good old C of E can pull towards the traditional one in the city centre. Despite the poem’s up-to-the-minute bitter satirical edge, its ‘baristas / boasting fair-trade on tax free plots,’ this contemporary highway robbery is juxtaposed with an older one, as the ironic ‘landlords’ reminds the reader of their thraldom to the breweries. The repetition of ‘two tones’ nods to Coventry’s finest sons, The Specials, whose Jerry Dammers founded the label, 2 Tone Records. The band’s anti-racist agenda echoes through Horgan’s and Owen’s contemporary Coventry, as ‘Many times my brothers walked past me / down Foleshill in the rain.’ Perhaps this Muslim salutation might be taken as a sign of difference and distance by some but here the possessive ‘my’ takes the greeting literally. Take a walk down Foleshill, past The Co-operative Funeral Care’s Asian Funeral Services, Sheikh Bro’s Halal Meat & Poultry and the Bharat International supermarket. Mock Tudor turns my stomach: it was only ever a property developer’s tawdry, bastardized little dream version of what they thought we thought England should be. Forget it. Foleshill’s neutralisation of this little England architectural horror is a gift to Coventry. As a living, evolving, beautiful organism, England has a future. It’s when we stop evolving, when we turn instead to some Lilliput Lane nightmare, that we might as well be dead. Coventry has been allowed no such luxury. The ‘city was made by flames, / the phoenix was a welder’s torch.’
Paddies trades Before the Rain Came’s optimistic first person plural for the dour net curtain twitching racism of yesteryear: ‘And all around here there were Paddies , / on this street and that street, down there, / Paddies, and they had their social clubs here / and there, look, there, they had their church / and the school where their kids went, / loads and loads of kids, / running around the place with their Paddy / names and their Paddy faces // and their English accents.’ The poem opens in medias res, which contributes to its sense of breathless, incandescent anger. Repetition allows Paddies to overrun the poem, like a plague, until the stanza break, where the plague suddenly disappears, assimilates – and reconstructs postwar Britain – food for thought as the media stake-out airports to whip up hysteria at the latest round of Eastern European immigration.
It’s easy to understand why a poet might want each poem in a collaboration like this individually credited. However, Horgan and Owen’s approach is more egalitarian – their poems stand side by side, 2 Tone, brothers. As far right politicians like Marine Le Pen offer their public easy scapegoats, this collection offers an urgent, contemplative, inclusive, optimistic vision. The final poem, Endreel (3), begins: ‘The best silence / is in the gaps. / In the empty inner city-house, / in the lull between engines, / in the tap room as it opens.’ It might not be neat, green and pleasant, but neither’s Jerusalem. Grey too is beautiful.