Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Well-versed in the art of simple communication

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The Independent Online
TIME for a confession. Three years ago I was converted in the church of St Martin's in the Fields in Trafalgar Square, though not to anything as confusing or evanescent as the religion of the Church of England. My conversion was to poetry written by by poets who are still alive, and in particular to the work of William Scammell.

It happened during a memorial service to David Blundy, that fine reporter who was shot dead in El Salvador in the autumn of 1989. Blundy was a very popular man and the church was packed. There were eulogies; someone played a cello; and then a poem was announced, to be spoken by the poet. My heart sank - the potential here for sentimentality (which Blundy would have hated) and opacity (which Blundy, as a writer of Alpine clarity, would have hated even more) seemed enormous. But Bill Scammell stood up and read a beautiful thing, which caught the reporter's character in a way none of the many obituaries did. He had known him for 25 years.

Knee-deep in bills,

old parking tickets,

terminally ill

with rust and rickets

your car moves off. Some

assignation

With Arab-Israeli desperation;

some rage for order

where things go leprous

in Salvador,

or your obstreperous

campaign against all staying put,

whether in bed, or in the heart

The rest of that poem is published this week among many others just as good and 'accessible' - which for some reason has become a pejorative in some circles - in Scammell's new collection, Five Easy Pieces (Sinclair-Stevenson). It won't make money. Living poets don't much - even Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes - but Scammell has long since accepted this as a fact of poetic life. He's 54 and lives in a cottage in Cumbria, his hat hung on a pension from his work as a lecturer in adult education which ended when university budgets were slashed.

That career makes him sound Larkinesque - quiet, secluded, scholarly - but in fact he left school at 15 and worked as a newspaper copy-boy, as a char, as a PR man for the National Association of Fruit and Potato Traders, in factories and on liners (as a photographer on the Queen Mary and the Mauritania) before he got into Bristol University at the age of 25. This may account for a certain unpreciousness in his approach to the writing of poetry. He is one of the few poets in Britain - Gavin Ewart and Wendy Cope are others - who will write to order, rather than waiting for the muse to strike. After he wrote one such for this newspaper at Christmas, his friend Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate, rang up wondering if he might 'subcontract out' some of his royal commissions.

(Photograph omitted)

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