Peter Godfrey’s first collection is a book of reports from the front-line, messages sent from over the border, beyond the edge of the map – Madrid 1939, Oradour 1944, Hiroshima 1945, Santiago 1973, San Carlos Bay 1982. It’s a celebration of those who – like Dom Helder Câmara, René Magritte, Oscar Niemeyer, Wat Tyler and Jacques Brel – have under stood ‘the glory of pedalling the wrong way on a one-way street’. And it’s a hymn to the defiant humility of those who believe that life does not have to be like this, and who imbue the world with grace.
Cover image: Peter Godfrey, indigenous girl Taissa Kambeba and friend, Amazonas, Brazil Author photo: Angus Morrison
The glory of pedalling the wrong way on a one-way street, for now the order of the world is this: black will be white and monarchs road-sweepers. Taking corners like the Manx TT, knees grazing the pavement, we breeze through red that might as well be green, past cars in a smoky veil. A policeman’s on his beat as I wheel by market porters with their blood-smeared aprons on this hillock, once a gallows – here Wat Tyler harangued the king. The moon glimpsed in a wedge of sky, I whirl down Pudding Lane, the FT Index up, it’s 12.04, 18 degrees – so what, I’m an angel fish in a school of rainbow stripes.
You board the Métro at Jacques Bonsergent – line 5 then surface at the terminus, strike out across the eerie bus station, hop on a slim blue tram for Seine-Saint-Denis. Tower blocks crowd a cloudless August sky, relieved by just one tree, and you are squashed with people from all parts, their weighty bags, are told: ‘Alight one stop past Libération.’ It rises like a crest in wavy concrete from the flagstones, half-submerged, a ship of state. Above, two men survey a sea of pavement, spread their cardboard beds, bask in the sun. The entrance is a secret down a slipway – you step through wide glass doors, are welcome here. Curved walls invite you along sinuous corridors that have no edges, seem to have no end, open on meeting-rooms starry with lights, low-ceilinged, confidential, where a lie would wash up naked and a pose be punctured by guffaws. Here talk is comradely, forthright. A scalloped theatre greets you, unsuspected, flowing blue and yellow walls, ocean and beach, plush proletarian seats – Niemeyer’s swirling claim the poor Paris banlieue could be Copacabana.
With an armful of baguettes too hot to hold I trailed behind the patron through Les Halles – green wrought-iron canopies, outside still dark. He probed some fruit, arrayed and plentiful then we made for the hotel: a metal vat of steaming coffee grounds and chicory that I ladled into bowls, served guests who wandered down in dribs and drabs, materialised from crannies, came in seasick off the rickety staircase to pain croustillant, hushed conversations, while the English night porter, moustachioed, stopped reading Fanny Hill and took the Métro home. ‘You really need a uniform,’ the patron mused. In cold mid-morning we set out again to Prisunic, his thin grey hair slicked back: he was wizened, small, dreamt of a box at L’Opéra, of cent mille balles. He rummaged for a charcoal polyester smock that buttoned at the shoulder – more dentist than garçon – said that would befit Le Grand Hôtel du Globe. In the makeshift lounge squeezed on the mezzanine and bathed by orange light I swapped thoughts with two postgrads from the USA who had a baby, discovered visions shared could span the ocean. Impromptu soirées fired those gathered there – spellbound by fellowship we spoke of what could be, breathed air still busy with revolt, ideas cascading down the stairwell, talk brimful of possibility, our anthems on the turntable, new 45s: Nicole Croisille, Aufray and Polnareff – the tunes that sent our spirits soaring and belied the grave, dour admonitions of De Gaulle. Banter in the white-tiled kitchen, a rosbif with Jean in his tall chef’s hat, half a finger severed, broad vowels of Le Midi, with Ali the wry plongeur and Jacqueline the waitress, lovestruck in another part of town; Philippe the commis chef riding in on his Solex with winklepickers and a quiff, telling me of home in Alsace, where later I’d visit him, turn up a rusted helmet on the hillside near Verdun; chance midnight rendezvous with fashion students from London – I chatted to a chic, slim girl, beguiled by long blond hair. Vin rouge stained our smiles, but any more I was too awed to dare. Striking out over the cobbles of Pont-Neuf, tripping up by a red-lit dive in steep Pigalle, catching my second matinee of the new Buñuel while workers marched on streets shiny with rain... Between the Louvre and plate glass of Palais Royal a story opened at a run-down hostelry tucked in a backwater, Le Grand Hôtel du Globe – dingy, compelling, where a rebel cowed leapt free.
I walked through keyhole arches: cream, vermilion and to my left more trees of stone were rising – if there was one there may have been a million. A forest of pillars on my right was hiding more exquisite arches: vermilion, cream, carved foliage on their capitals and gliding skywards like some never-ending dream or image of forever, harmonious peace of Moors, Christians and Sephardim – al-Andalus’s people: no erroneous hates or bigotry, or reason of the sword but an enlightened moment, glorious and predicated on the open word, informed by Arab grammar, geometry – not a war hero but learning was their lord. In the Alhambra’s shallow pool you could see an image of the cupola so high and plunge through reflections into infinity. This poise and equilibrium bathed in time was smashed by the iron-spiked inquisitor who’d countenance no other, vilify the Jewess with ‘Ave María’ above her door, Abdul who’d thought to change his name to Juan, garrotte them, or banish them to foreign shores. Among the chiselled fronds I had begun to hear the muezzin’s wail, the caliph’s prayer – or was it the gypsy singer sick with love, staunch as a Roman buttress on the Guadalquivir and fording the river on its well set course with plangent cries for her no longer here where farmers, shepherds too harnessed the force of passing currents, made their order? Listen! The clop of the hooves of Lorca’s horse through the cobbled alleys of Córdoba. Oradour-sur-Glane, 10th June, 1944 They reach out into the present – naked chimneys, vacant doors, the writhing iron where Jean-Baptiste swung his hammer in the forge, a rusted car with crumpled headlights, the seized up sewing-machine in the draper’s shop where Édith Leblanc once quietly stitched a seam. Never a pastis will be served on green baize at L’Estaminet. No hand on the cycle handlebars. A tram line to who knows where? Melted frieze of the church bell with a tongue that couldn’t toll. Glasses from a vanished face. Not a pen in the school inkwells. Six hundred and forty-two people flung into a heap. Then the S.S. plundered the cellar of the wine merchant, Jacques Denis, got drunk on the finest vintages and set the village ablaze, the whispers of the rooftops, a baby not yet named.
Night was black in Puerto Montt. Votes in the plebiscite had been counted – the dictator’s camp had won. ‘What can I do?’ The editor waved his arms, picked out bold type for ‘Yes to Pinochet’ as cars hooted ‘I told you so’ around the streets. For three days I was a guest at a pensión run by a couple with a young child. I walked by lakes, snow-capped volcanoes where grass at least knew nothing of authority. We got on well and warmed to one another, but this was a time of ‘general fear’. On the third evening the man took down a photo from the sideboard, showed me the family, then slipped it from its frame. Behind was a worn black and white snap that he held up, smiling – like a locket, silver buried in the garden.
‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.’ Dom Helder Câmara Here in the cathedral at Olinda though your voice is gone a breeze ruffles fresh flowers, the church bell tolls, a single bird in flight carries your credo out through palm trees over the turquoise sea, the sole, heretical truth – I’ve seen the beggars and the glue-sniffing boys – that food and shelter are for all to share, a baby’s cry is holier than angels.
‘To call Peter Godfrey a romantic traveller is only the start of the story. Yes, the poems tingle with the thrill of encountering otherness, often in distant lands, and of first awakenings. But they are also openings into harsh and painful histories with radical implications. And underneath them all runs the pull toward homecoming, not only to northern land and sea-scapes, but to the long traditions of lament in song.’
‘These are the poems of a widely travelled poet who plunges you straight in, engaging you in intimate relationships with the people and places he knows so well. His images are astonishing in their originality and subtlety, and give the reader such pleasure. There is gentle humour as well, and each poem is beautifully crafted.’