Red Bank, David Annwn, 2018, Knives Forks and Spoons, ISBN: 9781912211197, £7.00
David Annwn’s latest book is a study in the mind’s ability to hold multiple heres and nows simultaneously. Specifically, the poems in Red Bank bring together late 1960s Beatles, the Battle of Red Bank in the English Civil War, 1970s Lancashire and the now of their composition in a set of three interlocking sequences that are mutually illuminating.
Each sequence centres around one or two Beatles’ songs; in the opening section, Red Bank, the songs are ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Golden Slumbers’, the first drawing on Bach’s early 18th century 2nd Brandenburg Concerto, the second on Thomas Dekker’s early 17th century ‘Cradle Song’, the two bracketing the mid-17th century titular battle.
‘Penny Lane’ is a song of community located in the ideal world of 1960s optimism. It represents the home to which the singer in ‘Golden Slumber’s once had a way to get back. Later in the book we see surviving Royalist troops fleeing ‘to Renfrew, to Linlithgow’, also trying to get back home.
At the time the Beatles were writing and recording the songs, Red Bank was also a different kind of community, a school for young offenders and home to some of the most notorious child ‘criminals’ of the 20th century, the flip side of the hippy dream. Annwn weaves a flexible verbal music to bring together these disparate documentary strands as poetry of great fluidity:
Cromwell’s fenland grey-green eyes
weighed this incline
came as silent suns to night.
Too much of it lost
under work and study though we hid
on the bank with our willow-herb spears.
Red Bank assessment unit
for young offenders – once we knew
a way – kept them fit
and away from their families.
Their dormitories backed our
bungalow road; each mode
and splay of their sleeping minds
precious – though not a screw
I was a screw’s son.
The title of the second sequence, The Last Masque, refers to the Stuart Court’s delight in the masque as a form of propagandistic entertainment. The sequence opens with the Beatles’ famous rooftop performance of Get Back, a song that brings the homecoming theme to the fore. That concert coincided with a wreath-laying at the statue of Charles I at the distinctly unromantic nearby Charing Cross Road traffic island to mark the anniversary of the king’s execution. In one sense, this death was the last masque to be performed in the Stuart era, but the conjunction also calls out the parallels between the ‘Cavalier’ 1960s counterculture and their ‘Roundhead’ contemporaries, the office workers who had the music cut short by complaining to the police. This is underscored by the appearance of Paul, George and Ringo in carnivalesque Sgt Pepper’s costume on horseback in the promotional film for ‘Penny Lane’:
To read these fields by the king’s
festivities, a reinvention
As in the habit of masquerade
Sgt Pepper’s reflective wit
establishment. Even Hendrix
in his black hussar’s jacket.
The carpe diem element in ‘Get Back’ is accentuated by a reference to Herrick’s ‘Gather ye rosebuds’ as song ‘with William Lawes’ lunar music/remote and incontestable,/those vast distances’. Herrick’s poem is directly contemporary with the battle, and links it, a chance encounter in the early 1970s with Prince Charles (‘Carolus Hic Rexque Futurus’) and Red Bank school in another multi-layered ‘now’ that encompasses the Matter of Britain, albeit aslant. The placement of both battle and school in the vicinity of Hermitage Green Lane serves to underscore the mythic element while linking back to a possible bus destination from ‘Penny Lane’ in the first section of the book (‘Anyone is free to Hermitage Green Lane.’)
The final sequence, Harvest, opens with a conflation of the harpsichord-like sound of Paul’s Lowrey organ at the start of ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ with William Davenant’s Salmacida SpoliaI (the actual last Stuart masque) and John’s notorious ‘Jesus’ remark:
A harpsichord prelude
descent into spell
a pavane with
triple tempi for chorus
Lucy’s in the sky with diamonds
again and so is the queen:
‘a huge cloud of various colours
and within a transparent brightness
of thin exhalations, such as the gods
are feigned to descend in’
“We’re more popular than Jesus”
‘from over her head dart
Lennon’s ‘Lucy’ lyric was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice. Carroll, another Cavalier among Roundheads, created a topsy-turvy logic that might serve as a suitable prism for Annwn to focus his multiple nows:
It is another England
streaming backwards over
of 70s Lancashire
through grey corridors
and bus terminals
to (where else)
Carroll’s church at Daresbury
not far as you might think
as the raven flies
-triple tempi for chorus-
where Lennon caught a walrus.
This other England, one that can hold both flamboyant musicians and drab princes, Wonderland and schools for young offenders (Liverpool Reformatory Farm School for Boys, later the Red Bank secure unit opened just four years after Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865 and finally closed almost a century and a half later) is other because of what happened in the battle of Red Bank. The country’s odd blend of democracy, puritanism and hedonism, tradition and experimentation derives from the Civil War period and lies beneath the tensions, from rioting to Brexit, that break the surface of British society at regular intervals. In Red Bank, Annwn explores the roots of these tensions through the lens of a set of moments in time that exemplify them. At the back of it all is the expectation of past glories recovered, the return of empire or the reawakening of the Rexque Futurus, the sleeping lord and his hermit knights, a Beatles reunion rendered impossible by death. The book ends on an acknowledgement of this note:
To have seen seasonally the farm bonfire
with its acrid toffee and raked potatoes
and a calf, with sacs pulled around it,
and Fawkes’s effigy flare
and stranger things
a schoolscape lasting one hundred and fifty
to walk the track
and then forget
Requiescat in pace
Where is the well’s hermit
of this green Hermitage?
Red Bank is a book to come back to, each reading unpacking new layers of engagement with a society ill at ease with itself. Annwn is in full control of but his technique and the materials he has assembled to make these poems and the result is a deeply satisfying read.