Slip-stiching into the past, with a shipyard & some crochet & Denise Levertov

Entrance to Cammell Laird in River Mersey mist, 19 September

Yesterday I started reading a poem new to me, which I’ll come back to later, see below.

Also visited the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead and took an hour’s early lunch to get a crochet lesson  with Alma from the Calderstones Knit and Natter group.  While learning how to crochet (‘It’s all pattern, mathematical pattern is the basis of everything. So you can say you are a mathematician now,’ explained Alma. ‘Yarn over and chain two!’) I kept remembering the shipyard, where Andy had shown me round.  In one of the Cammell Laird sheds I saw the back-end of the RSS Sir David Attenborough (the ship previously known as Boaty McBoatface)  under construction. What a project, what a piece  of work. And these great sheets of steel, like dance-floors lying around the yard, autumn leaves dropped by giants. In crochet, everything is small, the shipyard, everything is big.  But  there is precision, pattern, mathematics and the human pull, the control of  the tension, making material stuff do what you want, in both.

And to me,  both were moving, perhaps the more so because they came so close together on the same day,  the shipyard butting up against the crochet. Both were parts of my now ancient-seeming childhood.

I  was a child in Neston and Eastham and had relatives in New Ferry, Port Sunlight and Rock Ferry. My great-grandfather was a lockgate keeper on the Manchester Ship Canal, my grandfather worked at Shotton Steel. Cammell  Laird loomed large in my childhood – Dads and Uncles on our council estate worked there.

And crochet? I don’t know why, but it seemed a middle class thing – old,  posh ladies my Nan cleaned for did crochet, and  my memories of  it aren’t pretty. A lot of it was made from shiny flesh-coloured silk, as if recycled shredded wartime underwear,  and doilies of it littered dressing tables, runners stretched over mantlepieces, antimacassars bothered you on the backs of arm-chairs.

We knew women who knitted ferociously,  gorgeously in white and lemon for babies. Others in my family were ‘not good knitters’ and made scratchy school jumpers where the sleeves were too long, the collars wonky. Jumpers with collars? Oh yes, this was 1961.  But crocheters? I don’t think anyone round our way did it. The old posh ladies  lived in  big houses with gardens and  flower borders and apple trees. Some of them had parquet floors and my nan polished those floors on her hands and knees except in one house where they had an electric floor polisher, and in the summer holidays I went with  her to those houses and ate cake, or more deliciously tablet, in the kitchen and sometimes had a go of the floor polisher, which was powerful with electric energy and could  run away with you.

Now I am one of those old posh ladies,  though avoiding the flesh-coloured silk yarn. And the tablet, sadly. And crochet has changed! Alma  has made a Freda Kahlo blanket and very  dangerous and lovely-looking it is too. And Cammell Laird has been brought out of the economic doldrums and back to life.

kahlo blanket.jpg
Alma’s Freda Kahlo Blanket

These things are in my mind as I re-read Denise Levertov’s poem:

A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England

Something forgotten for twenty years: though my fathers
and mothers came from Cordova and Vitepsk and Caernarvon,
and though I am a citizen of the United States and less a
stranger here than anywhere else, perhaps,
I am Essex-born:
Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.
Pergo Park knew me, and Clavering, and Havering-atte-Bower,
Stanford Rivers lost me in osier beds, Stapleford Abbots
sent me safe home on the dark road after Simeon-quiet evensong,
Wanstead drew me over and over into its basic poetry,
in its serpentine lake I saw bass-viols among the golden dead leaves,
through its trees the ghost of a great house. In
Ilford High Road I saw the multitudes passing pale under the
light of flaring sundown, seven kings
in somber starry robes gathered at Seven Kings
the place of law
where my birth and marriage are recorded
and the death of my father. Woodford Wells
where an old house was called The Naked Beauty (a white
statue forlorn in its garden)
saw the meeting and parting of two sisters,
(forgotten? and further away
the hill before Thaxted? where peace befell us? not once
but many times?).
All the Ivans dreaming of their villages
all the Marias dreaming of their walled cities,
picking up fragments of New World slowly,
not knowing how to put them together nor how to join
image with image, now I know how it was with you, an old map
made long before I was born shows ancient
rights of way where I walked when I was ten burning with desire
for the world’s great splendors, a child who traced voyages
indelibly all over the atlas, who now in a far country
remembers the first river, the first
field, bricks and lumber dumped in it ready for building,
that new smell, and remembers
the walls of the garden, the first light.

Yesterday I had read as far as ‘ I am Essex born.’ I’m just going to go a little ways further, but before I go I’m going to look up  a map of Essex and look up Hainault on Wikipedia, because these are specific places and I don’t know anything about them.  What would I do in my Shared Reading group – I might have looked them up in advance, but I am not a fan of much prep, think it deadens things and prevents the free rein of  thought. So, with no prep under my belt, I’d say – ‘Anyone know Essex at all? ‘ and sometimes someone will, and sometimes they won’t.  So then I might look it up on my phone in the actual group – which I think is a good model for group members tussling with a poem. The ‘expert’ doesn’t come along knowing everything, with  everything prepared. We find out as we might do in real life, more or less accurately. what I find when I look up these place names is that many of them are ancient and Essex – of course! is an ancient  British kingdom. Which is why  the boar hunt – the Forrest of Hainault, ancient woodland, suddenly appears. I look up Phillipa and find her, a merciful wise Queen.

Cranbrook Wash called me into its dark tunnel,
the little streams of Valentines heard my resolves,
Roding held my head above water when I thought it was
drowning me; in Hainault only a haze of thin trees
stood between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt,
the spirit of merciful Phillipa glimmered there.

I really like the  link between the red doubledecker buses and the boar-hunt. How in an anciently settled place (like Wirral, like Birkenhead, Rock Ferry, New Ferry, Eastham, Neston) time can slip between now and a host of ‘thens’ , how you are slightly aware of the presence of history. Vikigs came to West Kirby. sometimes I seem to see them, sailing up the estuary.

But Time’s up for  today. More tomorrow.

”A Map of the Western Part of the County of Essex in England” By Denise Levertov, from POEMS 1960-1967, copyright ©1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965,1966 by Denise Levertov. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. 


One thought on “Slip-stiching into the past, with a shipyard & some crochet & Denise Levertov

  1. peter flowerdew September 20, 2017 / 8:28 am

    Ay, the Phillipa/ Ed 3 union was a propitious one for England, not least because it begat that long list of children commencing with that unfortunate Black Prince, probably the paradigm for chivalry then. His successive siblings created sufficient history to be able to requite sadness, including the Flowerdew family.
    Nowt to boast about, I hasten to add, anyone who can trace their ancestors back that far would be related to that line. (assuming a population of approx 4m at start, 2m at end of century!)
    I did Google shipyards in Essex, but unless you mean the Essex USA one,, not much. Wivenhoe the nearest approach to such.

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