May 25, 2006

Poet Who's On The Ball


This article is reproduced courtesy of John Hudson, Western Daily Press

An avid Bristol City fan and a literary talent, Gareth Calway's seventh book has just been published. John Hudson reports

A FEW people in the West are sitting up and taking notice of Gareth Calway's literary credentials this spring.

Many round here know him only as Bristol City's official poet laureate, and he's happy to project himself in that role as a 50-year-old footie nut, an anorak who goes right back to the days of John Atyeo and Chrissie Garland.

But there's a great deal more to him than that, and a substantial collection of his best poems, spanning a quarter of a century or more, has just been published by Portishead's cutting-edge poetry imprint blue chrome.

Exile In His Own Country is his seventh book, and admirers say it sums up all the qualities the late poet laureate Ted Hughes once praised in his work - strength, wholesomeness and the best kind of simplicity.

It also positions Calway that little bit nearer to the literary mainstream, no easy task for a provincial poet without a comfortable university post to fall back on.

In fact he's head of English at a high school in Norfolk. And if you think that's where the "exile" bit in the book's title comes from, you haven't heard the half of it.

He feels as if he's never been anything but one.

His parents met on a train going to watch Bristol City, his dad was Bristolian born and bred, and his mum, Welsh, but living there.

A "Severn Beach honeymoon baby", he was born in Usk but spent his early childhood in Bristol before his family moved on to Frome and then the South Wales valleys, fromwhich he escaped back to Ashton Gate whenever he could. But his sense of living in exile goes beyond geographical boundaries.

Earlier on, there was the alienation from working-class roots imposed by grammar school and university, and now, while being deeply entrenched in the life and culture of East Anglia he still identifies closely with our part of the world, the land of his childhood

.He is known in Norfolk as "a bald head of English" and lively promoter of poetry, yet he will sit for hours in his car to enjoy or endure 90 minutes of what's on offer at Ashton Gate, roaring with the rest of the lads yet, in some ways, removed from them.

This, in part, seems to be a generation gap thing and, if so, it will only get worse.

He grumbles about the young men around him shouting stuff he would never dream of shouting and spotting things on the field that mean nothing to him:

Standing in my team red before a game, yelling the chants - in and out of sync, The main feeling is of being a complete fraud.

It's not that the team doesn't matter to me:
It matters enough to give me a heart attack.
It's just that, with only different memories of 2-3-5 to fall back on, I never really understand what's going on. . .

But then again, this is the kind of work many round here recognise in Gareth Calway.

What they will be less aware of is his sophistication as a writer who draws on everything from Eastern mysticism to myth, pre-Conquest English history and the East Anglia countryside to inform his poems.

That rather earnest list sells short the sheer sense of fun with which he makes serious points - and a rueful way of looking back, in which his childhood in Frome seems to fare particularly badly.

Of the school canteen, he recalls that:...

the smell Of boiled cabbage - as surely served in hell Would gas the stairwells, pied with potatoes Even pig swillers had sent back...

While his impression of Sunday school culture is summed up in a poem that ends:

Dear God, 'elp us to feel totally and completely useless, that human love is a sham that divine love is beyond us, 'elp us to deny every living moment of our actual experience, 'elp us to feel that we're better off dead...

Then there's the poet's first memory - of being attacked by a toucan at Bristol Zoo in 1958, which is recalled in infant Brizzle l ingo.

Gareth is at present in the midst of a spasmodic book tour that takes him to all the places that mean most to him - the West Country, South Wales and East Anglia.

The best day to catch him around here is July 22, when you can meet him (rather improbably) at Bristol Lord Mayor's Chapel on College Green in the afternoon (details tel 0117 929 4350) and at the Chepstow Festival's Drill Hall venue in the evening (01291 624836).

Gareth's Bristol City poetry, Sheer Paltry was recently published by the club at £5, with all profits going to Ashton Gate. Exile In His Own Country, just out through blue chrome, is a £7.99 paperback.

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