The Age of Anxiety
An Interview with Adam Thorpe by Mark Wormald
When Adam Thorpe introduced himself to the poetry-reading world two summers ago, with the publication of Mornings in the Baltic, his first full-length collection, readers were almost universally intrigued by the image his poetry presented. He was, one of his poems told us,
a long-haired graduate who wrote, and ran
a little company with puppets, whose dreams were rural
in an urban century:
it was an impression which every one of his poetic performances did something to confirm. The atmosphere of Mornings in the Baltic was predominantly that of a dishevelled erudition, defiantly , self-consciously out of step with the spirit of the age - of the dislocation captured, but also achieved, in that leap between stanzas in the quotation above. His drinking companions in "rightwing Wiltshire" quoted Lamb and Johnson, "the grammar / erratic but the sense sententious"; if titles like "Drama Workshop, Avebury" and "Egg Packing Station, Wiltshire" reminded us that the poet had to make a living, his wages were as literary as they were financial. He "read Lawrence's Apocalypse / between the [egg]boxes"; and found more excitement in the snatched conversations he conducted across time than in contemporary life alone. When, stepping out of the factory at the end of a day's work, he found "something unassailable" in the laughter ofthe people he worked with, that strength was nevertheless almost inevitably a response in a minor key to louder, more resonant voices.
Meeting Adam Thorpe in his North London home, I discovered how much has changed in the two years since those dialogues. The graduate's hair is shorter now; the wistful nostalgia in that earlier self-portrait, the distance it calculatedly asserted between persona and poet, as between puppets and their master, that much more apparent. When he talks about the experience that furnished many of those poems, it is with a casually academic detachment. He might, he says, just as easily have read History as English at Oxford (as it was, he left Magdalen with a First in English in 1979), and analyses his decision to avoid the careers trap of London by founding his own theatre company, Equinox, with the same objectivity. Taking shows round the villages of Wiltshire and Berkshire was not "traditional, / the local custom," as the "Drama Workshop" poem is ready to admit. It was instead both a considered rejection of urban life and an attempt to reconcile a lifetime distinguished by its oppositions. What he calls" A very medieval idea in the twentieth century", in which "there were all sorts of odd dissonances", gave him the chance of satisfying two contradictory appetites, each of which had been fostered by an extraordinary childhood and adolescence. His teenage years were, he recalls, split between terms at Marlborough and holidays pursuing parents to the Cameroon; other exotic postings included Beirut and Calcutta (he was born in Paris). "My life has been a combination of travelling and attempting to put down roots," he says.
In fact, however, Equinox remained more attempt than achievement, for all its success. Popularity in local primary schools counted for little in the face of the last decade's massive cuts in education budgets: the peripatetic life curtailed, he took a job teaching at his old school. A year's stay there was less of a refuge than it might have been. It provided an opportunity to experiment - "I did all the naughty things I didn't do as a boy: put on productions that people disapproved of, got on very well with the students (they were great)" - and to take a new step away from the confinements of formal, single-sex education. "Pedagogics - for Jo" describes how he met his wife, also teaching for a year, and how
each other from the classroom smell of socks and digestion.
But if these lines hint, with Thorpe's characteristic conciseness, at the enlargement that followed - the movement back to travel (this time from a London base) that saw Jo co-opted to Equinox and tours of Scandinavia (hence the title of the collection) - the poem's title and dedication, in their insistent juxtaposition of registers, cast longer shadows still, which the essentially nostalgic attitude of Mornings in the Baltic, however varied its expression, could not contain. Josh, the Thorpes' elder child, is now three years old; in that time, the facts of teaching - in the form of a job lecturing in English at the Polytechnic of Central London - have again become a necessity, a fact of stable family life. Admittedly, the first book's structure gestured towards this reorientation: of its two archaeological poems, the first celebrates the "click" of intimate conversation between the persona's (in this case, Thorpe told me, his own) trowel and a "Hand Axe, c.135, 000 B.C.", where the second gently reminds its archaeologist subject of
His wife and children at home, thinking how quiet the big chair sits without him, how clear the air.. ..
But it is only in conversation with Thorpe, and reading the poems he has written since, that the profundity of the change is revealed, the extent of its effect. His own dialogues with history, whether it was the stylised past inherited from literary influences or rooted in more physically immediate experience, are less disguised than they used to be, and also less awestruck. They are less dependent on other people's voices, more confident in his own. The favourable comparisons critics made as a result of Mornings in the Baltic he meets now with that same measured objectivity: his tone suggests a period of his life he has since left behind. "A terribly conventional list," he says, looking along his shelf and reading off names of favourites from the covers of their books. "Heaney, Larkin, Peter Porter, Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, MacNeice - I'm magpie-like, really." He garnered only what and where he needed to: if Larkin was an influence because "I taught him for two years - he sunk in", and if the manner of "Faith Healing" or "The Building" provided a convenient starting point for Thorpe's "The Therapeutic Masseur", his predominantly suburban view of England is too limited. Heaney's North was another early model, but "I haven't even bought Station Island" (let alone the volumes since). "Maybe I'm avoiding him now; he's a bit close."
Anyone poet, anyone stance but his own, would be. Thorpe parries my suggestions that he is part of any "tradition", though he knows and describes the line I'm thinking of - from Larkin back through Edward Thomas to Hardy: but where in the first book the refusal to restrict himself, to tie himself down, led him to variety, and a number of different voices, dramatic monologues, all attacking History and Language as themes, the approach is markedly different now. Of the poems he included in the first, unedited type-script of his new collection, Meeting Montaigne, a number (written, he says, in the wake of the publication of Mornings) had to be discarded. "They were becoming a bit like sermons - Anglican, mumbled sermons." In their place (and the substitution, as a comparison of the two typescripts reveals, was deliberate, achieved) there stands a new, hard-bitten and emphatically individual contact with the great themes; they are explored for their effect on the poet himself, and on his contemporary environment. Translation to the city has moved him away from the impulse that produced, in his first book, a jovially satirical first-person account of "Paradiso": he is now concerned to react more strongly against the "penumbra" that is Dante. Thorpe's Purgatory is moulded around his own urban life, and interpreted in the brilliant "Fourteen Stations", whose title measures his journey by tube to work. His daily immersion in the literary and more general linguistic commerce of the city has effectively silenced the urge to preach, and obliged him instead to concentrate on what surrounds, and thereby humanises, the grand abstractions. "Summer School" gauges the desirability of "some vista of meaning, / clarity", only by establishing its remoteness, its present obscurity among clouds; complaining that "In this city there are too many words", "Fourteen Stations" itself deals in the advertisers' current formulations of the past:
my mind is a litter-bin for secret-
arial agencies and sun-tan cream, Date-
line's insinuating narratives my head can't put down ...
"Dante never went under as I do," Thorpe continues, "hoisted back up again by deadlines, not / redemption" to "a / world where Good is conditional on fear".
The summary is typically elegant, but at the same time typically fraught: it is, indeed, a combination of the tensions contained within that aphoristic last line and the others produced by the poet's refusal to let his intelligent worrying at the world lapse, that generates the energy of the new collection. Those" deadlines" (or, in the spirit of their context, "dead-lines") score their depressing way through the book. As well as evoking the bleak, cramped, lifeless perspectives with which the city replaces the countryside's open views, the word also suggests the kind of attitudes which have, in recent years, grown endemic to both London and the nation as a whole: he diagnoses increasing "intolerance", "entrenchment", "extremism".
But while he is ready, in conversation, to apportion blame for some of the more obvious symptoms of the condition, he nevertheless remains careful to place those criticisms in a frame which manages to be at once consciously subjective and resolutely international in its origin. His antipathy for Mrs Thatcher, for instance, he traces back to his experience as a teenager: "Going to school in England then living in Africa enabled you to see the faults of England directly: this was pre-Thatcher, of course, but she was the culmination of everything I disliked. It was simply very grey here, and I felt homesick for Africa; but there were also things I missed, and those are the things that Thatcher has rejected, stifled, crushed." He adds a comment which is a pointed cri de coeur: "If you're a teacher you're sniped at all the time."
And he brings that same amalgam of political urgency, casual objectivity and depth of personal feeling to a problem that's broader, more sinister and (to someone who's not a parent) initially more surprising. "Every time you go out ofthe front door you're courting death, for a kid; it struck me how merciless society is. This is something that's not ameliorated in this country by a showing of affection. In France and Italy, for instance, there's much more room for children; my foreign students are quite amazed by the difference in the attitude to children here." Although he cites the freezing of child benefit as an instance of this, he insists on a qualifying distinction: "It goes right up to - not back to - the government. It's a cultural thing; I don't know where it comes from."
Cultural anxieties of this magnitude demand a more appropriate that is, more cultural - response than either society or its organs are equipped to provide.The real achievement of Meeting Montaigne is that it fills the gap, criticising those institutional strategies as it develops an individual - and individualist - alternative. Whether as parent or as poet, Thorpe now emphatically rejects the idea of direct confrontation and its rhetorical equivalent, in favour of a quieter personal involvement. "All the poems I've read about Thatcher have not been terribly effective," he says. "I didn't want to snipe at her in the collection; that would need a Pope."
The allusion is, of course to the poet, and to the fluency of Augustan satire; but Thorpe 's own commitment to the notion of implication (in a moral as in a rhetorical sense) rather than infallibility - his conviction that pervasive, secular "fear" conditions our distorted interpretations of what's metaphysically "Good" -looks beyond Twickenham and takes in Rome, stands as an implicit argument that Papal unequivocality, in any sense, is the last thing we need. "We've had so many messiahs in this century, whom people follow": two poems in the new book, "Safety in Numbers" and "Persia", point out the dangers that accompany the latest, modern resurgence of religious fundamentalism, whatever the creed. "[The] Word faxed out forever" achieves immediate potency at the cost of its potential strength: what it can mean in specific circumstances to individuals struggling quietly towards faith.
We have already seen indications of Thorpe's alternative. If history has been bought out and broken open by "Date- / line", it's also possible to reclaim the lost ground, and assert the "secret" in "secretarial" by just the same means. Thorpe has got the material for that reclamation on hand, in his family. One of the most moving poems in Mornings in the Baltic was addressed "To My Father", and describes how father and son "communicate" by racing each other in cars,
disputing our respective times, then glad they were equal.
Meeting Montaigne, as the title itself makes clear, extends this principle of personal and temporal reconciliation; without, though, indulging in the earlier book's extravagant leaps back through history. The meeting in question takes place in the France of the present; Montaigne's round tower in the Dordogne "invites us" - the family on holiday? - to play the intellectual tourists.
[It] is a modest beacon to an enterprise that assailed the blank walls of faith
with the rustle of a quill and a mind
nothing much more than weary of religion and the fickle court.
There is no longer any need for Thorpe to inhabit any voice, or situation, but his own: challenged with equivalences the usual relics are sufficient to point up ("Que sais-je? medallioned on a chain "), the poet is inevitably inspired to follow Montaigne's model; but to do so is to consider his own surroundings, and ask himself unspoken questions about the here and now. Little has changed, either in the problems confronting the individual or in the best means of individual response:
Montaigne's plea in the Essais (and reproduced, in the original, as Thorpe's epigraph) that one must be free to "fourvoyer" or stray, to "tordre" or twist, and that one must stray and twist in order to remain free, is just another expression of a pluralism, a flexibility, that others have defended since - MacNeice's sober defence of "the drunkenness of things being various" particularly appeals. Thorpe's comment pays attention to both aspects of the truth: its precise original context and its continuing viability. "It's a relativity: a rejection of the medieval idea of custom being inscribed in stone. Montaigne's renaissance view was that it was more a matter of environment, of circumstance ... It's a plea to be able to admit one's mistakes; in a Thatcherite context, to be able to shift one's ground."
The structure of Meeting Montaigne hints at what Thorpe confirms: that he is to make the most of this freedom, and take it both literally and literarily. Relief from urban confinement is intermittent in the collection, but bright enough when it comes to suggest a real purposefulness - significantly, in poems about the growth of the family which themselves gather strength towards the end of the book. The titles begin to read like a manifesto: if a visit to "Burnham Overy Staithe" and "Josh at Thirteen Months" are rare beacons of hope among the gloom, then "Holding Back", "Slipping Anchor", "DIY" and "Sacha", the last four poems, anticipate the directions the family are about to take. There are other clues: the minstrels to whom he listens on his Walk man are emphatically French, as are the subjects of several other poems. From October, France will be the Thorpes' home. Adam is taking a year off from teaching, to live and write in the rural Cevennes, courtesy of an advance from his publisher. A book of twelve short stories, set in a single (fictional) village on the Wiltshire-Berkshire border over three centuries, is, it seems, currently absorbing all the poet's enduring fascination with the theatrical: each story is a dramatic monologue. The fact that the new poems are, in his word, "furled", full of his own concentrated voice rather than those of his puppets, his personae, is at least in part also a function, then, of the new opportunities he has found to experiment in prose. He enjoys the balance, and says he relishes the approaching freedom. With the short stories of Ulverton due to be posted off to Secker from France in the Spring of 1991, it looks as though Adam Thorpe is on his way to discovering his literary roots; in the process he will have turned deadlines into lifelines, and a way of life.
Meeting Montaigne is published on June 25th by Secker and Warburg.