After breaking a thirty-five year writer’s block with two books in quick succession, Jeremy Robson selects the best of his poems from a long life in poetry, including his first books from the early 1960s, his recent collections Blues in the Park and Subject Matters and some fifty new poems. The Heartless Traffic is a book about childhood haunts, Jewish roots, youthful passions and the rumbling of war; about nights in Soho, Venice, Paris and Rome, the mysteries of Cairo and the alleyways of Jerusalem; and about some of the artists Robson was close to over the years, including Vernon Scannell, Alfred Brendel, Michael Garrick, Ron Moody and Dannie Abse. Witty and fond, original and compelling, The Heartless Traffic is a book about change and regret, politics and jazz, love and loss, as Robson looks at a world under threat and listens to the ‘the heartless traffic / in its endless race to God knows where.’
So much drama waiting to be unleashed, though for the moment, poker-faced, cold, the large screen waits impassively in the silence of a curtained room. Yet nothing will come to be unless I turn the switch to On, and so decree. There’ll be no ashen-faced political set-tos, no panicking herds fleeing a lion’s claws, no thrilling shoot-outs at Wembley or the OK Corral, no arrow piercing Harold’s eye... and poor, tormented, soliloquising Hamlet will never decide. With radio too, on/off, on/off, much the same, an endless power game. Last night, as I drove abstractedly through the hypnotic darkness of a motorway, La Traviata rose towards its heart-breaking climax. A live performance it might have been, but there was death in the air. Overwhelmed by the beauty of the music and Violetta’s impending demise, I pulled into a lay-by and turned the radio’s switch to Off. While I’m in control, I told myself, she’ll never die. Rain, like tears, was running down the window pane. Passing cars flashed their lights uncaringly. If only we could press the pause button in real life, cry Stop when tragedy looms, death is about to strike. But when fiction becomes fact there’s no release from that, no lay-by to pull into, no turning the engine off. Eventually I switched the radio back on. Just the sound of applause. The audience, I imagined, now on its feet, the singers, the conductor, taking well-earned bows, flowers from the wings. Freed from the plot, Violetta, hand in hand with her lover Alfredo, had sprung back to life. A true diva, she’d live to die another night. As the applause gave way to an announcer’s voice I turned the key and waited for the engine to revive. Then, pulling back onto the motorway, I joined the heartless traffic in its endless race to God knows where. So much drama waiting there.
It should have been a relaxed postprandial stroll down a quiet country lane, and so it was until three small dried-up corpses caught my bleary eyes. I blinked, thinking that drink had got the better of me, but no, there they were, folded over the top of the barbed wire fence skirting a nearby field. Rats, I thought, but why, gazing like that at the evening sky through what must once have been their eyes? Though they’d stopped me dead in my tracks, I wasn’t as dead as they quite clearly were. How long they’d been hanging there I couldn’t say, but from the look of them it must have been for quite some while. ‘Not rats,’ the farmer informed us laughingly when next we met, shrugging his large Gallic shoulders, ‘they’re moles’ – a laughing matter for him perhaps, steeped in his country ways, but not for us, and certainly not for the moles he’d trapped and hung there. ‘An old Normandy custom,’ he said. ‘Hang a dead mole at the boundary of your field, and live ones will keep away.’ ‘Flee for their lives,’ is what I thought he’d say! I looked at his field, not a molehill in sight, only some lambs that bleated appealingly as we passed. No doubt their fate too was in his questionable hands. Returning silently to our own small garden further up the lane, nothing but molehills everywhere, a battle long lost. Hardly a patch of green to be seen. That night I lay sleepless, thinking of that cruel local custom. An old Norman one it might have been, but what else did they protect themselves from I wondered? Demons, heretics and witches in the superstitious past? The dukes and barons who had ruled their lands with iron hands? The Germans who’d invaded them? From early on it seems we’ve always needed something to protect us – flying phalluses carved on the pillars and gateways of mighty Rome to keep the evil eye at bay, still worn on amulets today, a scroll on the doorposts of Jewish homes, the walls of many Middle Eastern houses painted blue, and blue stones too on rings, bracelets and necklaces to keep that same feared eye away. So many old and trusted practices, but when armies invade and evil reigns, when doors are smashed and families dragged away, what use are they I asked myself as I turned uncomfortably under the protective covers of my bed, nothing but negative thoughts swamping my head? Next day, passing that field again in the full-on sun, they were still hanging there, those withered moles, but at the back of the field I spotted a line of small mounds, the fresh earth slowly rising. It was as if an underground army was on the march, and as my mind began to clear I wanted to cheer, realising that a battle lost can become a battle won, marvelling as the moles moved their hills forward defiantly, one by one.
with thanks to Geoffrey Paul It seemed as large as a continent, that magical park I’d hurry to whenever I stayed with my religious grandparents in their rambling old house in Leeds. Still too young to venture there alone, I’d badger an older relative or friend to accompany me so I could kick a ball around, dodging the flower beds that dotted the extensive lawns, and bowl at makeshift stumps. Sepia postcards in my mind recall the large open-air bathing pool we’d rush to on timeless summer days, and the wooden jetty on the lake from where we’d throw bread to inquisitive swans and stare at quicksilver fish until the falling sun threw shadows over the rippling water. Roundhay Park, the name itself still retains a hold over me stronger even than the larger-than-life heroes in the biblical stories my bearded grandfather would read to us in front of the large log fire in his draughty sitting room, while I sat mesmerised by the glowing embers in the grate and by the dramatic exploits he’d powerfully relate. But they couldn’t really compete, those awesome characters and tales, with the exciting park and the clattering trams we’d catch to get there once the Sabbath was over and we had the all-clear. ***** Those adventurous visits ended abruptly when my father’s parents went heaven’s way, to be replaced by Hampstead’s extensive heath, which became, with its ponds and endless twists and turns, my teenage stomping ground. I climbed the giant trees in the wooded areas, bow in hand, thinking I was Robin Hood and this Sherwood Forest, where he’d rob the rich to give to the poor – something, despite my early socialist leanings, I could never quite bring myself to do as I dreamt the days away. At Easter and Whitsun there were always several music-blaring fairs, and I and my friends would hurry to the ghost train, devouring candy floss, and commandeer the bumper cars, cutting each other up, preparing for life. The thrill, and the pungent smell of fried onions and hamburgers linger still. Later, when girls came distractingly on the scene, Sundays by the lake at Regent’s Park were the competing draw, and when luck struck we’d help this or that one onto a narrow wooden boat and row her manfully, trying not to splash or overturn, seeing what favours we could earn. ***** Wild oats sowed, married and the father of two, we’d walk our twin daughters in Golders Hill Park, bordering Hampstead Heath, looking at the deer and the flamboyant flamingos, at the watchful owls and exotic birds in the park’s mini zoo, delighting the children, taking their breath away. These many years on, I continue to walk regularly in this gem of a park, thinking back, searching for words, as I pass the spacious animal enclosures and stroll towards the Victorian grandstand and the Italian cafe on the hill, sometimes pausing there to watch the ducks perform their amusing cabaret. This was ‘Dannie’s Park’, a mutual friend who lived nearby declared when I told him of my frequent wanderings there. And indeed, in many ways it was and is, for this is where the poet Dannie Abse loved to stroll, as I do now, lines and poems forming in his head as he stared abstractedly at the primroses and daffodils that heralded a new season. Dannie’s Park, especially after the crash that snatched his wise and gentle wife Joan from him in one of life’s cruel turns, leaving him shaken in mind and body. I visualise him there, his landmark mane of thick white hair, whenever I approach the bench by the cafe, thinking no doubt of his lost muse, searching for a word, the word, for there are many words, he always said, but for a poem only one right one. And nearby, stretched out on the ground, leaning backwards on her arms, in pale blue shorts and a singlet through which her breasts protrude, sandals lying casually beside her long bare legs, the elegant statue of a girl waits invitingly. There should be a plaque there for Dannie, with a line or two from one of his poems. It would be his Poet’s Corner where friends and admirers could gather once a year, read a few poems, chat and laugh as he’d always do, keeping his name alive as we endeavour to. And hopefully that long-limbed girl he would not have failed to notice, would still be there, listening invitingly, ready to chat. He’d have welcomed that. ***** The seasons turn and the years burn, in Golders Hill, in Roundhay Park, as in the many other parks we’ve visited over the years, but spring and summer always return, and so I take my turn, stepping up, filling the pages as best I can, while the impassive lady in blue looks on, her smile and falling hair firmly in place, waiting, watching to see who next will take the stage, as the sun revives or the lengthy winters rage.
for Eilat and Yehuda I was teenaged and full of wonder when first I glimpsed Jerusalem’s magical hills, approaching them in a packed Egged bus as humid day gave gradual way to slowly spreading night. However often one makes that journey, it remains a thrilling sight. By day, by night, I paced the city’s sprawling streets, marvelling at the pinkish colour of buildings whose stone seemed to have absorbed the light of an insistent sun, and later at a sky so bestrewn with stars it seemed unreal. As I scampered among rocks and cypress trees, ignoring the heat, it felt as if pages of the Bible were strewn about my feet. So often sung about, in both joy and lamentation, Jerusalem may have endured many conquerors over the centuries, but the burnt-out armoured cars that lined the old road from Tel Aviv were a reminder that its history is not a musty one, and all around. We were not then free to enter the Old City, lost to Jordan by the fledgling Jewish state in the war of forty-eight, and I would stare down at its walls and ramparts little more than a stone’s throw away and at the rifles pointing up at us. They looked like toys but I was warned to keep my head well down. I thought of David and his sling, of mocking Goliath and the stone that felled him. Visiting with my wife some twenty years later, after the Six-Day War had brought another bloody twist in the city’s fate, we joined the throng pouring through its now open gate. The world beyond the Jaffa Gate was for me an oriental wonderland – the scent of many spices in the air, the rows of shops huddled invitingly on both sides of the narrow pathways, the Arab shopkeepers arguing and bargaining with the tourists eyeing their colourful displays. But for my wife, born and raised in Alexandria, it was a familiar enough landscape, taking her back to a childhood that had been snatched from her but to which she would often return in unsettling technicolour dreams. This, though, was no dream, and I watched in silence as she took it all in, a silence broken by a muezzin’s call to prayer from a nearby mosque. We needed no reminding that this was a city of many different faiths. It was only recently, after many years, that we returned to walk the dusty streets and alleyways of this mythical city, and there was tension in the air sparked by riots and explosions near the Dome of the Rock. Soldiers stood by watchfully, taking stock. Steered by cautious Israeli friends, we strolled towards the safer Christian Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, conscious that some two millennia earlier Jesus had been made to walk those same streets, staggering along the Via Dolorosa under the weight of the massive cross he was to carry into history. Many who’d come before him and many who followed had shed their own tears in this fought-over land, and asked their own God in their own tongue why he’d forsaken them. But nothing could have deterred the pilgrims kneeling in the church that August day, while we, strangers, watched quietly from the aisles, not wishing to intrude. Outside, waiting beggars held out empty cups and young boys pursued us, proffering crude wooden crosses, pictures of the crucifixion and other mementos. As intense as the relentless spotlight of the sun were the emotions that swirled around us, and with relief we stumbled into a small cafe, glad to pause, drink freshly squeezed orange juice, eat a pitta sandwich, have time to think. Further along, the black-hatted guardians of a different faith prayed in the open against the surviving wall of their destroyed ancient Temple, rocking backwards and forwards in their fervour, lost to the modern world, and to many Jews too, some of whom looked on, as we did, uneasily. As much a Jew as they, what is it I guiltily betray in writing this? It’s not for me, proud of my lineage, to judge or say, for who knows what they were praying to redeem or what terrors they had seen. Here the past, stoked by fear, is always near, and there are many voices in the air. ***** The hills of Judea that circle Jerusalem are where the Prophets roamed, and still today their peaceful beauty would seem to be their natural habitat, timeless and far removed from a world of tourist buses and impatient cars. Gazing across at them, it’s easy to imagine a Jesus or a Mohammed, an Isaiah or a Jeremiah emerging from the early morning mist and dew, bringing to this troubled land the peace the politicians in their parliaments and the holy men in their churches, synagogues, and mosques have failed to do. In this city of dreams, nothing is as fanciful as it seems.
My eyes concave from watching an enthralling Test and every bit as worn as the ball they’d tirelessly thrown, I felt in need of my own tea break. The sun was relentless and the heat at record height, so the nearby park with its lawns and open space seemed just the place to regain my head and sight. And so it was, and more quickly than I’d supposed, as my surprised eyes locked on a woman lying face down, absolutely naked, on the passive lawn of that normally tranquil park. Such bare-faced cheeks! Whatever she was thinking of, it wouldn’t, I imagine, have been of England. Hard to ignore her, you’d have thought, especially with a figure as enticing as hers, but people were, men squinting out of the corners of their eyes, smiling complicitly then hastening on, mothers accelerating past with their toddlers and prams, even the oblivious squirrels continuing to play with their nuts. But the two policemen who approached her, helmets in hand, were not ignoring her, summoned no doubt by an outraged citizen of that bourgeois borough to do their duty. But even they hesitated, conferring and moving away at the last moment, for to turn her out they’d have had to turn her over, and that, to their relief, must have been beyond their briefs. As for me, as I watched and wondered, I’d forgotten all about the cricket, the score, whether there’d be a follow on, a new ball, a draw, and whether the batsman who’d been given out just before tea really had been leg before. It didn’t seem to matter anymore.
There was just a handful of boys whose names I vaguely recalled, and several others who later won some fame, their faces etched in a timeless frame. And there was one boy whose name, hidden in a list at the bottom of the page, was the same as mine. Curious, I turned the page with care, for after six or so decades it had begun, like me, to show its age. There I read, amidst the results for that year’s boxing bouts, how he’d entered the ring at seven stone three and won a hard-fought fight. The weight, the year, fitted perfectly, but still it was hard to believe that boy was me, though memories of a make-shift ring in the cold school gym began to stir. What made him spring through the ropes that day I cannot say, only that the school motto was Serve and Obey. There were other mentions of him in that old school mag, but none about which he’d want to brag. Nothing scholarly, not a single prize – hardly a surprise. It might have seemed an easy ride, but it wasn’t always so. Behind those silent classroom walls, and down those long endless corridors, hidden terrors lurked, especially in the perilous early days when every foot one put was wrong. You never dared be late or forget a book, or talk in class behind your hand. Those gowned masters may have seemed way past their sell-by dates, but most knew how to scream and whack. It all comes back. I turn the pages looking for further clues, recalling the societies and plays, the grey-haired masters dressed for Corps, the morning roll call and prayers in an echoing hall where names were read out, either in blame or in praise, or because they were no more. Hard to ignore. I returned there nervously one Open Day, hoping for what I can’t explain, but there was no one there I knew or who knew me, not surprising given the years that had passed and with them all the masters and many of those who were in my class. Clearly that boy I was is fiction now, just a fading name on a black-and-white list, and I’m no more him now than I am the man I was yesterday, or the day before. Just a stranger rattling a long-shut door.
An evocative sound that stays in my head, the steady ringing of the bell, the children’s high-pitched laughter, the organ-like Wurlitzer music gradually slowing as the merry-go-round came to a gentle halt, which it did that summer’s evening as I walked towards it from the car park at the harbour’s edge, quickening my step when its flashing lights came suddenly into view and the steady looped music started up again. ‘One more go, please just one more go,’ the children beg as they drag their compliant parents towards the lengthening queue. Always the same, one go never enough. The ringing of the bell again, hurry, hurry, the music reviving, the parents proudly waving as their children ride by, some waving back daringly. One for the camera. How thrilling to be riding up and down on the saddle of a wooden horse, clinging on tightly as if approaching the winning post, to be steering a vintage car or sitting in the cockpit of a bright-red plane with spinning propellers, dreaming of a cloud-free sky. So real all this to them, and so transporting for me, as the music and flashing lights revive memories. I loved it then, and I love it now, a moment of innocent joy and make-believe. Night was beginning to fall as I turned away towards the restaurant where my own family waited, rather too old now to enjoy all this though it was not that many years since they’d been tugging at our sleeves, wanting just one more go, ‘please mum, please dad,’ something we laughed about that night and love to recall, photos on the mantelpiece preserving it all.
They were meant to last forever, those respected elders with their long gathered skirts and stiff wing collars. Family was what they lived for, or so we supposed, and their Faith was everything. But who knows what demons haunted them when curtains closed. One by one they vanished from the scene, as if gone on a forever holiday. Much whispering in the wings and at family gatherings, but for us, several generations on, the seasons followed their customary course and not much changed. Not at first, anyway. But as the cast at those gatherings dwindled we came to understand an altogether different story, felt somehow let down. They had seemed so upright, so solid, so permanent. Now we are the elders though we wear different clothes, and the young now look to us for the reassurances we once relied on as we join in the fun and help as best we can, and will until we too go on that eternal holiday, hoping we’ve made our mark as those before us had, but nothing sad.
‘Robson’s vision is both gentle and steely, and on top of his ability to touch one deeply is a marvellous, wry observation of the sweet, sour and savoury in life.’