Now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older: celebrating National Poetry Day

The most unusual thing I ever stole, as far as I can think, was a book of poems. There was no previous owner as such – at the age of fourteen, I’d received a copy like every student in my year, and while officialdom demanded these books’ return after two years, I resolved early on never to give mine back.

The book was our course anthology, containing over fifty texts to study for exams. No one was expected or supposed to read or write about that many – the book, a mass-produced A4 affair, contained sections of poetry from pre-1914, from ‘other cultures’ and by then-current national writers, from which teachers made selections – and my class must only have read and discussed umpteen. I read each last one though, slipping the slim volume into my bag instead of handing it in at lesson’s end, sneaking home with it to pore over its contents at my leisure. I remember distinctly that when I turned sixteen the month exams were held, each page was thick with spidery teenage script, annotations laced like latticework between text and images, covering it to the last square inch.

How I loved that book. The two years during which it was a course text for me were perhaps the hardest of my life, and certainly those most filled with fear: fear of going outside, fear of harassment, of physical assault, fear of being outed; fear of homeless, fear of self-harm, fear of attempting suicide; fear of failing. Fear of succeeding. The fear I most lucidly remember though, perhaps oddly given its competitors, was of my voice. Public speaking is a widespread fear especially in teenagers, and I still recall my fourteen-year-old self’s efforts not to shake during a speechmaking assignment, but more than that, I loathed my voice. Nasal, stuttering, equipped with vowels to match neither my region nor my social class, it brought me no end of embarrassment and angst. (When a line in Othello called for ‘bastard’ to be read out, my long, southern ‘a’ drenched in self-aware discomfort, I squirmed inwardly.) Somehow, the anthology I half-inched home was an antidote to this.

Humanist platitudes on literature and why to study it are ten-a-penny, mostly involving tawdry clichés: friends found between book covers, world travel from inside one’s bedroom, hot tears shed theatrically reciting A.E. Housman. Like much of humanism, seemingly in all its forms, these are unsalvageably middle class apologies, speaking to those who love English, who rejoice in it, but not who need it; whose education is for leisure not survival. My feeling (and for this I won’t apologise) is that that book of poems saved my life, or at least helped to. When I scoured its innards reading Walcott, Blake, Imtiaz Dharker, I sensed for the first time that my voice could mean something – that it might, one day at any rate, make people stop and listen if I learned to do with it a fraction of what they had; that instead of hampering me, it might grow strong like Sujata Bhatt’s titular tongue. It’s the greatest privilege there is really to have a voice, a powerful engine of hope to think yours might be heard. That shaped as well as saved me: it’s what first impressed on me that I should be a writer, a great part of what made me want to study literature. I know I’m not alone in this.

The anthology remains on my shelf, its contents having stayed with me since first reading them. This being Britain’s National Poetry Day, I’ve wondered which poem from it to share here, but only one was ever a serious contender. Simon Armitage’s ‘Kid’, the title entry from his third collection in 1992, resonates more strongly with me now than ever.

A rare trochaic pentameter, turning traditionally heroic iambs back to front, the poem’s metre suits its subject matter. Years after having flown the Batcave, a jaded adult Robin vilifies his former mentor:

I’m not playing ball boy any longer
Batman, now I’ve doffed that off-the-shoulder
Sherwood-Forest-green and scarlet number
for a pair of jeans and crew-neck jumper;
now I’m taller, harder, stronger, older.

The caped crusader has been found out, myths of familial warmth with Robin scotched, affairs with married women blown open, ditching his ward only to wind up destitute and alone. It’s a bleak, pained monologue, but triumphalist as Robin taunts him finally:

Batman, it makes a marvellous picture:
you without a shadow, stewing over
chicken giblets in the pressure cooker,
next to nothing in the walk-in larder,
punching the palm of your hand all winter,
you baby, now I’m the real boy wonder.

It’s a poem for anyone who’s outgrown a hero, let alone a swathe of them – for all who’ve learnt to mistrust those they were told cared about them, as certainly my teenage self did, beaten, kicked and spat on while teachers stood by. (My former headmaster, whose insistently gendered title is revealing, is one Batman I can’t fail to envision reading Armitage’s lines. Neither of us ever deserved to know the other.) There’s a silver lining in there too, though: a suggestion we emerge taller, harder, stronger, older on anguish and betrayal’s other side. I feel sure personally that I’ve Armitage, his fellow writers and poetry at large to thank for that.

There are other texts from that anthology which merit reading (I wish I had the space to name each one), whole other volumes I could mention just as lovingly. But that stolen book of poems gave me a sense of hope and strength I desperately needed. I’ll never give it back.

Winter is coming: forget Christmas and fall in love with it

Warning: contains spoilers for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Each season has a scent to herald and define it. Summer’s belongs to sizzling car roofs and sweating rubber tyres, the static residue of thunderstorms following heatwaves, autumn’s to low-hanging mist and rotting leaves, then toffee apples, fireworks and chip fat running into drains. Winter’s at its height is fresh, the icy clean of morning frosts and condensation-covered windows, but its first approach has an anflug of its own – the oily, faint metallic wash of pipes grinding back into use, radiators moaning once more while cold hangs in the air outside. This was the smell that filled my house this morning.

Till January I’m resident again in my home town, a draughty, church-filled thorp near the Scottish border, twenty miles of mountains, lakes and woods to either side. Not since 2008 have I seen winter in here: for the five years in between, I spent those months either in Oxford or Berlin, returning Christmastime to a place transformed without viewing the transformation. Before that, winter was a misery, dark days and long nights holed up, blocked up and fed up, craving sunlight and release. As a teen I loathed this town, longed to escape its smothering isolation – the day my A-levels reached an end, also the day I turned eighteen, I packed a bag and left by train, staying on the road till university – and the darkest, coldest time of year when venturing outside was foolish made it feel more cut off still. Our calendar’s last months, the dying embers of the year, seemed lifeless, desolate, as bare emotionally as nearby forests.

I wonder looking back how much of this reflects the religion of my childhood. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory for children after which my whole bedroom aged eight was styled, the titular witch Jadis – having corrupted it on its creation – curses all Narnia with a winter that never ends, though Christmas never comes. (Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.) The bleak midwinter makes a familiar metaphor, as in Rossetti’s poem and its hymnal setting, for a world short of salvation: Christmas arrives, both first time round and for believers since, a light in the darkness, imbuing creation once more with life and hope.

The trope isn’t unique to Christianity, whose major rites are at once its most syncretic. Those festivals which fall around midwinter, as festivals are prone to do, have often stood for redemption in some sense or other: feasting after a year’s hard labour, remembering past struggles’ fruits, festooning evergreens and keeping fires lit, reminders the cold season’s atrophy will give way in its turn to spring. Summon your fondest images of winter – aren’t they, in fact, ones of its mitigation? Music and merriment to counteract bleak weather, time with loved ones to stop icy roads and storms cutting us off; fires to beat discomfort back, roast feasts and sweet things to quell emptiness psychic as well as bodily. We console ourselves, in Steven Moffat’s words, that we’re half way out of the dark, toasting our own resilience and emergence soon from the the cold more than we toast the cold itself.

My godless life rather enacts Lewis and Rosetti’s spiritual winter – an atheist, my world has yet to thaw in their terms (or rather, has succumbed to deconversion’s heat death), and my secularity of late runs deeper still. Partially as an introvert, partially tending despite myself toward the ascetic, I’ve little time nowdays for festivity, Christmas included: its trappings and traditions leave me jangled, stressed and out of sorts – longing, if I might half-inch a term from Christian liturgy, for ordinary time. The best December of my life so far, I spent alone two years back in Berlin, 2011′s last weeks pursued in solitude except online, nothing at all of Christmas or much else timetabled in. If this sounds glum, it was the perfect converse: nothing can be a hugely profitable thing to do, and ducking pomp and circumstance made me aware I generally dislike them – on birthdays, solstices or other dates. Berlin’s long freeze, in fact, prompted me to review my thoughts on colder seasons: I now find Narnia’s Christmasless winter quite ideal.

Like atheists, winter requires no redemption. My instinct is if we accepted it – if we focused in simply on feeling winter, instead of self-distracting with egg nog and tinselled trees, trying not to feel it – we just might fall for Jack Frost on his own terms. As the scent of winter’s nearness greeted me, sweeping between the house’s walls, I thought of its barren beauty, like that of deserts and ghost towns: exhalations thick and opaque, vanishing seconds after forming, empty skies clear and crystalline. The shortness of the days is precious, not oppressive, enough to give us pause and make us catch them while we can; being stuck inside, an invitation to focus on what counts. And what wakes slumbering neurons like a brisk morning’s cold snap, kicking the senses into gear, the mind into the present moment?

This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

Winter is coming. I welcome it.