This is my older mind lint.
There once was a land of plentiful sunshine and rain where bananas grew in abundance. The people of this land loved their bananas. They loved their bananas raw or cooked. They loved banana ice cream, banana smoothies and banana cream pie. They loved bananas so much they called their land Bananaland and went about in banana hats and banana shoes. There were monuments to the banana in every town and village. The flag of Bananaland was a peeled banana with beams of light shining out of it. On Sundaes the faithful were called to worship by the peel of banana bells. Worshippers received the banana benediction and were given banana chips to remind them of the flesh of the banana and banana wine to remind them that banana wine was really rather nice. Then they did the hokey cokey and turned about. The capital city of Bananaland was called Chiquita and in the capital city was a Cathedral where the banana bishop carried a golden scepter in the image of a banana. The banana bishop wore an enormous banana mitre and was revered both as ‘The Top Banana’ and ‘He Whose Hat Is Bigger Than Anybody’s.’ There was no separation of church and state in Bananaland so there was also a king who was known as The Big Banana who wore a crown of golden bananas. The Top Banana and The Big Banana were jealous of each other and at state occasions the Big Banana always wore the crown with the biggest bananas and a dollop of cream with a cherry on top and had to be addressed as ‘He Whose Hat Is Even Bigger Than He Whose Hat Is Bigger Than Anybody’s.’ The Big Banana also presided over the annual Thanksgiving parade where there were banana floats, banana dances and banana boat songs. And while some Bananalanders occasionally grew tired of bananas, they were all happy, more or less.
Until one day in the Chiquita marketplace a man wearing a robe of banana leaves began preaching that there was only one true Top Banana. He preached that banana bliss was not attained by he who had the most bananas but by he who gave the most bananas to the poor. In the weeks that followed the preacher drew bigger and bigger crowds and wherever he went his followers threw banana flowers in his path, sometimes causing him to trip because banana flowers were big and a bit lumpy. The merchants of Chiquita complained that sales of bananas were falling. The priests complained that banana worship was falling off. The Big Banana complained that too many people were complaining. So he had the preacher arrested and sentenced to death. The preacher was taken to the place of execution outside the city where he was put in a big bowl and beaten to death by soldiers operating a very large egg beater. Which was all they had in those days to make banana smoothies.
Instead of putting an end to the preacher his followers began holding secret meetings. The sign of the egg beater began to appear all over Bananaland. The Big Banana tried to root out the movement but only drove it further underground. No matter how harshly they were persecuted believers continued to sprout up everywhere Until one day The Big Banana died and was succeeded by his son who said the whole thing was really rather silly. Whereupon the Top Banana excommunicated The Big Banana in what became known as The Great Banana Split.
This lasted until Bananaland was invaded by the People Of The Pineapple. Bananalanders had lived in uneasy proximity to the People Of The Pineapple for a thousand years but preferred to pretend they weren’t really there. Until a new Sultana by the name of Rum Baba ascended to the Pineapple Throne with a promise to bring all Bananalanders into the Pineapple Ring. Rum Baba proclaimed that the pineapple was the one true fruit and all non-believers would have to convert or die. Rum Baba sent his fiercest warrior, Salad-DinDin, into Bananaland with a great army. Word reached Chiquita that captive Bananalanders were being made to sit naked on revolving pineapples until they converted to Rum Baba-ism. Banalanders rose up in righteous indignation and The Big Banana called for a crusade against Salad-DinDin. At a rally in the mainsquare of Chiquitaone speaker suggested the banana might go quite well with the pineapple and was torn to pieces. The Big Banana said there could be no compromise with the People Of The Pineapple or before you knew it the whole world would be one big fruit salad.
The armies of both countries met in a great battle on the Vanilla Plain beneath the Big Rock Candy Mountains. The Bananalanders advanced behind the symbol of the egg beater and were met with a barrage of pineapple rum flambé. Salad-DinDin followed up with his cavalry which the Bananalanders met with massed tres bouches that flung banana peel under the hooves of the oncoming horses. The tide of battle surged back and forth all day and long into the night until tens of thousands lay dead on both sides and both armies were exhausted. But Salad-DinDin was forced to retreat back into his own territory and the Bananalanders returned to Chiquita and held a great banquet of just desserts.
The next year a traveler arrived in Bananaland with a wagon piled high with fruit nobody had seen before. He said he came from the land of Pina Colada where his fruit, the coconut, grew in abundance. The coconut had many beneficial uses. It yielded a sweet and refreshing drink, its succulent white flesh was nutritious and could be turned into butter that was good for the complexion. Fiber from its husks could be woven into rope and mats. And, the traveler said, the coconut went well with bananas and pineapple. He and his coconuts were taken to the execution bowl outside the city and whipped into a coconut cream pie.
Anybody who views their past from a perspective of 50 years distant will invariably see themselves and their place in the world differently. And not always flatteringly. So it has been with me in writing The Leek Club. To the point where, on the eve of my departure to the U.K. to do some promotion, I find myself tinged with regret for the opportunity I missed to talk to a man who knew Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway in Paris between the wars.
In 1963, when I was 16, I got a job as the editorial office boy for The Evening Chronicle in Newcastle in the northeast of England. My duties were to answer phones, take messages, run copy and roust reporters out of the pubs. I also had to type up the daily weather forecast and the shipping movements on the River Tyne and deliver them to a sub-editor called Basil Bunting. Wild haired, rumpled and often muddled, Basil seemed to me a man who’d been given an easy job on the subs’ table as a kindness. I regarded him with almost complete indifference. It wasn’t until a year later, when I moved up to the reporting staff, that my wilful ignorance was confronted by the replacement office boy, Barry McSweeney. Barry was into poetry the way the fictitious Billy Elliot was into ballet. Except Barry was real. I recall Barry telling me one day that Basil was a famous poet. So famous that he toured colleges in the U.S., reading his poetry. My reaction was that, obviously, being a famous poet didn’t count for shit.
The rest I viewed from the periphery. To my surprise there was a poetry movement in Newcastle. Barry was part of it and so was a friend of his, Tom Pickard. Barry was 16, Tom was 19. Tom and his wife, Connie, wanted to set up a place where they could promote poetry and hold readings. They found an old and unused tower on what remained of the castle walls and leased it from the city council. Barry and Tom asked Basil to perform the first reading and Morden Tower came into being. Infected by the youthful enthusiasm of his acolytes Basil returned to writing poetry. In 1965 he wrote the epic ‘Briggflatts,’ which is now recognized as the singular masterpiece of British post-modernist poetry and has been compared to Beowulf in its importance to the oral storytelling tradition. Morden Tower is now one of Britain’s major literary landmarks. A place where Ted Hughes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and Seamus Heaney read their work and Allen Ginsberg performed Howl.
I knew little of this at the time. A couple of years later Barry achieved national recognition with his first book of poetry ‘The Boy From The Green Cabaret Tells Of His Mother.’ Tom also achieved success as a poet, playwright and screenwriter and for a time worked with Paul McCartney - McCartney wrote the introduction to Tom’s book ‘Fuckwind.’ Tom has always remained true to his muse, the working people of the northeast. Today he lives in the Cheviot Hills at ‘Fiend’s Fell.’
I met Tom two or three times in the very early days and recollect an evening at the poet Jon Silkin’s flat at the Haymarket in Newcastle where six or seven of us were treated to a curry cooked by Jon’s Indian girlfriend. There was no furniture to speak of, just books around the walls, carpets and cushions on the floors. We smoked dope, ate with our hands and my eyes were opened to a Bohemianism I never knew existed in Newcastle. But, I was into music, drinking and girls and I didn’t start writing properly until much later. When The Leek Club decided it had to come out of me I went back to the northeast to do some research. It was then I learned that Barry had died from alcohol addiction in 2001. I also learned about Basil. I learned that the man I’d dismissed as an irrelevant old fool had a life wilder, braver and more exciting than I ever knew. Born in 1900 he’d grown up with the century. During the First World War he served six months in jail as a conscientous objector. On his release he went adventuring around Europe and the Middle East. In the Canary Islands he became acquainted with a Colonel Franco who went on to become General Franco, the dictator of Spain. He began writing poetry and became part of a literary crowd in Paris where he helped Ezra Pound launch the Translatlantic Review. He knew Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot as equals. Then he moved to Mesopotamia, which he loved, lived in Baghdad and married a Persian woman. And that, it seems, is when he worked for British Intelligence as a spy. There’s a photograph of Basil as a young man, sitting on a sunlit terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, with a dashing Van Dyke beard and moustache, wearing a singlet and a cocky white hat. That was the irrelevant old duffer I’d met at the Chronicle. Those later years were not kind to Basil and he had to work as a down table sub-editor at the local paper to pay the bills. After reading Basil’s history, after reading Briggflatts, after reading of his poetic renaissance before he died in 1985 I was filled with a sense of loss. The loss of a fascinating and brilliant man.
But especially the loss of an opportunity to know him. To enjoy him the way Barry and Tom did, when it mattered.
It’s always been hard to make a living as a poet and it’s probably harder now than it has ever been; just the courage and the determination it takes to pursue such a difficult literary form in the face of almost universal indifference. Thankfully I am responsible for nobody’s ignorance but my own. I use a quote from Briggflatts at the beginning of The Leek Club knowing I’m borrowing from Basil’s brilliance but wanting in some small way to honor his legacy. Soon I’ll be back in the northeast, reconnecting with the place where I haven’t lived for 50 years and seeing Tom Pickard, still gloriously and irreverently alive. And the next time you’re inclined to dismiss some rumpled old fool as a has-been or never-was try to be kind. You just might be passing up the opportunity to meet somebody truly amazing.