The speaker in ‘Sirens’ has a real life counterpart. He was a friend to someone close to me. I’ll call her ‘Rosie’ and him ‘Tim’. Rosie had survived bankruptcy, divorce and eviction and had moved into a tiny bedsit above Remo’s café on Fulwood Road in Sheffield. Cockroaches scuttled under the cooker and Rosie’s insomnia played out to a soundtrack of students pouring in and out of Broomhill pubs. It was the time of Blairite New Labour; of Brit Art and Cool Britannia. It was a boom time for some, but it’s never a boom for everyone.
Tim lived in the flat above Rosie. He was a friendly face during a lonely time. He invited her up to share tea and jokes. He had a bulletproof sense of humour and a refreshing, brazen honesty. Over the years they confided more and more, but didn’t become lovers. If I told you all the things Tim confessed to Rosie, you’d think I was exaggerating. But as Dickens says: ‘What is exaggeration to one class of minds and perceptions, is plain truth to another…’ Peter Reading quotes this in his Ukulele Music, the kind of poem I wish I could write.
Like the speaker in ‘Sirens’, Tim had been an architect. He‘d dropped out of that to pursue painting and photography. And he did take a paternal and seedy interest in very young prostitutes with drug problems and eating disorders. This placed a strain on Rosie and Tim’s friendship – and soon Rosie moved away. Years passed. She tried to get in touch with Tim, but he’d left no trace.
One night some years ago I was making my way to the Kelham Island Tavern to meet a friend. Kelham Island was, as it remains now, a liminal space where gentrification overlapped with industrial decrepitude and a residue of prostitution. On my way I passed the prostitute who features in the poem. In life, she was even more distraught, and my poem doesn’t do enough to capture her coarsened vulnerability.
My friend was nearly an hour late. I’d plenty of time to think about that woman, as well as the tameness of my response to her appeal. I spent a long time thinking about Tim, and tried to imagine when he decided to take the path he chose. Morally dubious he might have been; but he wasn’t tame. If his motives were seedy, they weren’t squeamish. I was developing an ambivalent admiration for him. Here was a man whose vices were close to the surface. I could hear his voice interrogating me for hiding mine behind a safe and rational front.
The speaker in ‘Sirens’ is a composite of Tim and several other men. They include a photographer featured on a documentary film; my mother’s second husband; a predatory college lecturer. There are more. These are the kind of men who are intelligent, flawed and in possession of what the poet-paediatrician William Carlos Williams called ‘ground sense’. I mean the sense that comes up through the feet from walking a terrain – literally, or figuratively. It seemed to me these men could inhabit a world, however extreme, and absorb it until it became a powerful insider knowledge. We might call them ‘outsiders’, but it’s often us who are outsiders when we enter the sphere of their insight. ‘Sirens’ may well fall into the convention of the unreliable narrator. I’m sceptical of its flawed speaker. But I confess to an equally flawed and dubious admiration for his ground sense.
I‘ve heard the phrase ‘dull and worthy social realism’ used within the creative writing enclosure of academe. Is this a postmodern rejection of exhausted realism, or an insulated reluctance to engage with worlds outside the enclosure? If ‘Sirens’ is dull, then I’ve failed to capture Tim’s voice as it interrogated me in The Kelham Island Tavern – a voice that sounded like one out of Dante or Browning. It wasn’t preachy, or polemical; not a worthy appeal to liberal conscience. It belonged to someone who’d been places I hadn’t, seen things I couldn’t, and recognised in me that impulse to know, but only to a point – the impulse of the moral tourist who can’t stomach too much information.
Tim wouldn’t have told me what he told Rosie. The irony is, he wouldn’t have trusted me.
‘Sirens’ appears in the Fugue section of West North East and featured as part of Street Haunting, an evening of narrative poetry with Matthew Clegg, Rob Hindle and Fay Musselwhite at the Fat Cat, Sheffield, on Sunday 27 October 2013.